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Pa. Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ gets everything lavishly right in 50th anniversary production

And in an overdue change, the "Tea" scene has jettisoned its offensive Asian stereotypes.

Lillian DiPiazza, Ian Hussey, and artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in "The Nutcracker" at the Academy of Music
Lillian DiPiazza, Ian Hussey, and artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in "The Nutcracker" at the Academy of MusicRead moreErin Baiano

Let’s be frank: The Nutcracker doesn’t really make sense. Why, for example, should the Sugarplum Fairy, who dances perfectly well by herself, suddenly acquire a Cavalier in the Second Act? (Answer: So they can perform an impressive pas de deux.)

And why are the divertissements (those charming vignettes representing candy canes, shepherdesses, and flowers) presented facing the audience, rather than little Prince and Princess, whom they’re supposed to be entertaining? (Answer: So the paying crowd can see what’s going on.)

The thing about Nutcracker is, it doesn’t have to make sense. It exists to provide viewers with lush fairy tale music, inventive costumes, inspired dancing, and theatrical magic. And the Pennsylvania Ballet’s 50th anniversary season of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, which began its monthlong run at the Academy of Music on Friday night, succeeds on all counts.

Fresh from a $4 million renovation, the academy positively gleams — although the new row letters at the end of each aisle are difficult to read, and the new custom-designed scent intended to perfume the lobby with an aroma that captures the essence of this particular Nutcracker, can be hard to detect.

On opening night, the ballet’s orchestra, under the expert direction of Beatrice Jona Affron, was in fine fettle. And so were the dancers.

>>READ MORE: Nutcracker a tough nut for orchestra, too

As Sugar Plum, Lillian DiPiazza was superb, whether shepherding the diminutive Angels or leaping onto Ian Hussey’s shoulder (lives there a more attentive, noble Cavalier than Ian Hussey?).

Mayara Piñeiro’s Dewdrop was luminous. Everything she did seemed unforced and beautifully nuanced.

The rest of the casting was equally felicitous. Who better than the impossibly flexible Oksana Maslova to dance the sinuous role of Coffee; the gravity-defying Jermel Johnson to soar as head Candy Cane; or Charles Askegard, an exceptionally expressive performer, to convey the strangeness and tenderness of Herr Drosselmeier?

Of course, Nutcracker also depends on three young artists. Ava DiEmedio is an excellent, believable Marie. Rowan Duffy is the quintessential bratty younger brother. And Liam Agnew models the attitude of a future Prince.

Balanchine choreographed this Nutcracker in 1954, and some aspects of the ballet now seem dated, even distressing. Protests have arisen regarding some of its ethnic stereotypes — notably in the “Chinese” dance, also called “Tea.”

Traditionally, the dancers (almost always Caucasian) have worn heavy makeup and performed movement based on unfortunate, vaguely “Asian” stereotypes. But times are changing: Last year, the New York City Ballet, for which Balanchine created this work, revamped its “Tea” — losing the pointy-finger nonsense, among other choreography changes — and the Balanchine Trust, which controls the artist’s oeuvre, now allows other companies to do the same.

On Friday night, the performers in Pennsylvania Ballet’s “Tea” (including the excellent Zecheng Liang, who, ironically, is from China) presented the new version, now without the offensive racial caricatures. It was a welcome change.

The Pennsylvania Ballet will perform “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” through Dec. 31 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., tickets: $39-$184; information: There will be a special sensory-friendly performance for children on the autism spectrum at noon, Dec. 27.