Pennsylvania Ballet has been performing

The Nutcracker

in various incarnations for 40 years.

I've seen more versions of this seasonal classic than I can count - professional companies, student productions, quirky remakes. Live, on TV, on video, animated and in many, many rehearsal studios.

Yet after all this time, in all these performances and permutations, The Nutcracker has never lost its magic.

Pennsylvania Ballet's annual run, now known as George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker,' opened Friday night at the Academy of Music. The company has danced this version since 1987. In the early years, it was a mix of choreography, but Act 2 always has been the Balanchine version - since the first one in 1968, five years after Barbara Weisberger founded the company with Balanchine's encouragement.

There are so many special moments in this ballet: when the tree grows, of course; when Marie's doll bed swoops offstage and a much larger one replaces it; when the Nutcracker comes to life and then, in the blink of an eye, becomes a prince; when the angels seemingly float across the stage.

The snow scene is divine. The icy blue scenery and costumes, new last year, set the story on the banks of the Schuylkill, right here in Philadelphia. The red-coated Philadelphia Boys Choir sings along with the orchestra. And snow falls softly on the stage as the dancers jeté across it. In our high-tech world, these low-tech effects still elicit a sense of wonder.

The new-last-year costumes and scenery really spruced up the production - but the spruce itself, the Christmas tree, is old, and - despite the new trimmings - it shows. Its Astro-Turf green simply doesn't fit with the richer palette of the rest of the production. The company would do well to replace it.

This year's children are adorable, particularly tiny Lucas Tischler, who played the mischievous Fritz on opening night. (There are three casts of children.) Sara Culbertson was Marie (called Clara in some productions) and Peter Weil, her Prince. Both are animated performers, and Weil's feet stretch into an exceptionally nice arch.

The adults generally are quite good, particularly Riolama Lorenzo as the Sugarplum Fairy. She dances a softer variation than most I've seen, but it's confident and lovely. Her pas de deux with Sergio Torrado as her Cavalier was less precise; their lifts and promenades looked cautious, and their partnered pirouettes did not match Lorenzo's far stronger solo ones.

Amy Aldridge is a light, flitting Dewdrop among the flowers, and the costumes in that scene are among the evening's most beautiful. The many tiers of petals on the flower tutus bloom as they move, and Dewdrop's pink dress and tiara are even more breathtaking than Sugarplum's.

Among the suite of Sweets, Jermel Johnson is a dynamic jumper, and was a crowd pleaser as the lead candy cane. He also danced the part of the soldier doll in Act 1, when his air turns should have been sharper and more militaristic.

A word of caution: Check the curtain time on your tickets. Many performances start at 7 p.m. A passel of audience members came late on opening night and were seated after the first scene, disrupting the mood in the Academy.

Contact writer Ellen Dunkel at edunkel@philly.com