In some circles it is fashionable to pooh-pooh The Nutcracker as an insubstantial holiday treat, suitable only for stage-struck little girls and their doting mothers. But (a) what's wrong with escapism, especially at this time of the year? And (b) Pennsylvania Ballet's annual production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker - at the Academy of Music through Dec. 29 - offers two hours' worth of sheer theatrical magic, something no one should ever feel too old, or too serious, to enjoy.
This Nutcracker has all the bells and whistles: fabulous costumes (by Judanna Lynn, who deserves a gold medal for those astonishing mice alone), Peter Horne's gorgeous sets (especially in the snowy forest scene), and the spellbinding effects: a Christmas tree that doubles in height, a flying boat, a mini-cannon that shoots wedges of cheese.
Moreover, the child performers, who feature prominently in this production, are not simply adorable; they also can dance. Coached to a fare-thee-well by ballet master Jeffrey Gribler, these pint-sized performers almost always remember to stretch their feet when they jump, and stay in character no matter what (one soldier lost her hat onstage but kept going, like a consummate professional).
Ultimately, the children playing Marie and Fritz make or break the first act of Nutcracker, and on Saturday night 11-year-old Abbie Rorke outdid herself, presenting just the right mixture of youthful exuberance and growing maturity. Meanwhile, Tino Karakousis, who is only 7, was entirely believable as her annoying younger brother. Both these very young dancers can also act, without seeming to do so - a rare and valuable gift in a performer of any age. Likewise, in Act II Aidan Duffy, 9, as the Prince, did a fine job of summarizing the plot highlights, entirely through mime.
The grown-up dancers were no slouches, either. On opening night the principal adult roles were played by Julie Diana (Sugarplum), Zachary Hench (her Cavalier), and Amy Aldridge (Dewdrop). The always-impressive Aldridge tossed off turns and leaps with her usual aplomb. And Diana was particularly expressive and warm, showing off her pliant footwork and flicking her fairy wand with obvious delight. As always, Hench played the ultimate Cavalier - unfailingly attentive to his partner while infusing even his smallest gestures with profound meaning. Their grand pas de deux was the highlight of the evening.
Several other individuals deserve special mention, among them conductor Beatrice Jona Affron, who knows her way around the beloved Tchaikovsky score, and the excellent violin soloist Luigi Mazzocchi. Also Jonathan Stiles, whose "Drosselmeier" seemed appropriately dangerous, yet also kindhearted. And the 16 (adult, female) Snowflakes - assisted by the Philadelphia Boys Choir - conjured up exactly the sort of festive, otherworldly beauty that people come to The Nutcracker to experience.