Fresh off a seven-performance tour of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker to Ottawa, Pennsylvania Ballet opened at home Saturday night with a polished performance at the Academy of Music.
The principal children - Mary Lee Deddens as Marie, Juan Rafael Castellanos as her brother Fritz, and Christian Lavallie as the Prince - are adorable and all danced well, but they also drew the audience in with a believable sense of wonder.
Pennsylvania Ballet is a small company, so most dancers perform more than one role, which only adds to the transformative feel of the story. Lauren Carfolite and Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan are Maids serving drinks in Act 1 and turn into Tea in Act 2. Most of the Snowflakes blossom into Flowers. Holly Lynn Fusco was the Harlequin doll in Act 1, a Snowflake at the beginning of Act 2, and then the lead Marzipan Shepherdess later in the show, performing all flawlessly.
Amy Aldridge is an ideal Sugar Plum, smiling and beautiful. She upped the role on Saturday, with great reactions as the Prince mimed his battle with the Mouse King. She also added extra turns to her pirouettes, twice doing four rotations. Only her partnering with Zachary Hench as her Cavalier now and then seemed forced.
Barette Vance Widell danced Dewdrop, a gorgeous fairy who jetés and flits on and off stage among the flowers. Her solo featured a set of fouettés that she finished with a fast double turn.
Other notables include Brooke Moore as the female lead in Hot Chocolate, who performs in a group of 10 dancers but is magnetic in the role. Alexander Peters, an apprentice, was a sharp, precise Soldier doll, something the part demands but doesn't always get.
Riolama Lorenzo has been off the stage for several months, and it was wonderful to see her back as the sultry Coffee, performing with a bare midriff and sixpack abs that made it hard to believe she had a baby girl in July. There won't be many more opportunities to see her, though; she is retiring from the company in February.
Jermel Johnson excels in roles that require high jumps and extreme flexibility, and he brought both to Tea, with Carfolite and Ryan. This is the one divertissement that, while entertaining, also seems extremely dated, with non-Asian dancers representing Chinese people and performing stereotypical movements. Yet somehow, with an African-American man and two white women in the roles, the politically incorrect aspect was played down.
One section that needs work is the Angel dance. The children in beautiful costumes are a joy to watch, but they do not float as they do in New York City Ballet, which dances the same Balanchine choreography. Either the children's steps need to be smaller and faster or the dresses longer, to hide their feet.
With low-tech magic and a top-notch cast, Nutcracker is a holiday favorite for good reason. Catch it if you can. If you can't, stop by the Comcast Center, where Pennsylvania Ballet is part of the new holiday show on the wall.
Through Dec. 31 at the Academy of Music. $20-$140. 215-893-1999 or www.paballet.org.