The Champaign-Urbana Ballet, led by Deanna Doty, has done it again! The annual production of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet "The Nutcracker" opened before a capacity audience Friday evening in Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and it is a smash hit.
Performances of this work have become a rite of passage for young people, from toddlers to teens, and the audience on opening night proved that this marvelous ballet has lasting appeal to all age groups.
Mounting a production of this visual splendor is an enormous task. Doty said in an interview that the cast this year amounted to 120 people. Add on the more than 40 members of the Sinfonia da Camera, ably led by Ian Hobson, and the numbers mount higher.
And then there is the legion of volunteer parents, making costumes and transporting all those "mice," "rats" and fearless soldiers, and the total effort approaches that fatigued word "awesome."
The dancing of the young members of the company was on an admirable level. But the charm of the show also rests on the fledging efforts of little children who seem to have learned to dance before they learned to read.
The party scene that opens the ballet created a wonderfully warm and comforting aura. The major roles in the performances are double cast. I will refer to the Friday, opening night cast. Blake Lanesskog was amusingly impish as "bad boy" Fritz. Valerie Linser was charming and agile in the dramatically demanding role of Clara. She excelled in portraying the young girl's emotions as well as executing the difficult ballet movements of this part.
Nick Hittle was valorous and supportive as the Nutcracker. Gibby Kirby as Rat Queen energetically marshaled the hordes of rats and mice in an effort that, as usual, fails before the soldiers' cannon.
The second act, in the Land of Sweets, contains the most spectacular dancing. Maura Dickson as Sugar Plum Fairy was outstanding in the polished assurance of her dancing, and she was valiantly supported by Ben Chapman as the Cavalier. Both Dickson and Chapman got rousing applause for their duo dancing as well as their solo leaps and whirls.
Spanish dancers Tuli Bera and Peyton Herbert were exciting in their number, and Erin King was charmingly delicate as the Chinese Butterfly as she led in the resplendent Dragon, headed adroitly by Kristin Feddersen.
Maeva O'Brien gave a lithe and sensuous appeal to her Arabian Princess, and Kirby partnered her with finesse. I especially liked O'Brien's climb down the shoulders of her Bearers.
The Russian Dance returned triumphantly to the performance this year, and Emily Beverly and Corbin Phillips gave an exciting whirl to the pounding rhythms. They were ably seconded by a quartet of fur-hatted Russians, danced by John Ebel, Scott Keeble, David O'Brien and Christopher Ochs.
Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles, as usual, brought down the house with their act, and the audience clapped along in accompaniment. Is it possible that the "nippers" in this dance get younger every year?
The dancers in the climactic "Waltz of the Flowers" were sporting lovely new costumes. Michelle Lu was airily graceful as Rose Queen. Along with Taylor Feddersen and Hailan Shanbhag as Rosebuds, and the Flowers, this was the most spectacular combined dancing of the evening. The choreography for this performance was by Doty and Harvey Hysell.
Brett Feddersen's commanding performance as the magical Herr Drosselmeyer has become a tradition, and he continues to wave his magical hands with vigorous energy.
The playing of Sinfonia, led by Hobson, was magnificent. Let me single out for praise for their accompaniment in the solo numbers flutist Jonathan Keeble, piccolo Mary Leathers Chapman, Oboe Evan Tammen, Clarinet Yi-Wen Chen, bass clarinet Solomon Baer, the horns, led by Brian Kilp, the trumpets, led by Ronald Romm, harpist Chen Yu Huang, and the celesta playing of Rochelle Sennet, and all the others players who brought Tchaikovsky's wonderful melodies vividly to life.
The production staff of the C-U Ballet should be proud of the accomplished, professional appearance of the entire performance. Andy Warfel was the production designer, and Kevin Gawley was the lighting designer.
The curtain call was a masterpiece of organization, and received rapturous applause. Doty joined her legions of dancers, and Hobson received the applause for his eloquent players.
At the end of this marvelous ballet, Clara, after the splendors of her dreams, wakes to find her solitary nutcracker. We in the audience were graced with a warm glow that lasted long.
Performances continue this weekend at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.