A ham is born, and a new level of excitement continues, at Pennsylvania Ballet.

First, about that ham. Friday's opening-night cast of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker included 8-year-old Rowan Duffy as Fritz, the troublemaking little brother. Already a promising dancer, he was the picture of petulance when scolded for yet another round of mischief-making.

Duffy was far from the only standout. The level of dancing and acting has clearly risen companywide at the ballet, as has the caliber of young students recruited to fill the enormous number of roles Nutcracker requires. Among the outstanding performers and performances in the first act: young Rachel Stern (Marie), whose arms were particularly graceful and expressive; the exceptionally clean entrechats executed by Harrison Monaco as the windup Soldier; all 16 women in the genuinely magical "Dance of the Snowflakes"; and outstanding solo violinist Luigi Mazzocchi.

In Act II, Aidan Duffy (Rowan's 11-year-old brother) does a fine job of dramatizing his heroic saga as the mouse-killing Prince; the divertissements were enlivened by Jermel Johnson's superhuman jumps in "Tea"; and the gorgeous, technically impressive Mayara Piñeiro, alongside swoon-worthy Arián Molina (as Sugarplum and her Cavalier) elicited roars of approval from the audience.

For this viewer, however, the evening's star was Lauren Fadeley. Always worth watching, Fadeley, as "Dewdrop," enchanted with her warm, unforced smile (that's her photo on the banners lining South Broad Street), and generous phrasing.

Both famed and reviled as a dependable cash cow without which few American ballet troupes could survive, Nutcracker has the potential to be much more than holiday fluff. This production in particular is full of great theatrical effects, sumptuous sets, and imaginative costumes, plus a plot that - though full of holes (where does that Cavalier come from, anyway?) - is no sillier than that of most other traditional ballets.

On Friday, the troupe's ace conductor, Beatrice Jona Affron, set tempos that seemed faster than usual, but the dancers were up to the challenge, allowing that sense of excitement to build throughout the evening, to a dramatic and satisfying climax.

George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'

Through Dec. 31 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St.
Tickets: $30-$135.
Information: 215-551-7000 or paballet.org