The production got off to a strong start with an elaborate Victorian parlor set that drew applause from the audience even before the dancing began. As the guests, who had trooped across the front of the stage during the overture, gradually filled the room, it took on the air of a holiday three-ring circus, with a bustle of smaller activities — children playing and opening presents, adults dancing or in earnest conversation — framing the main action.
The dancing was fluid and joyful, but most striking was the choreography, which maneuvered up to 40 people at a time through routines executed with grace and precision. Considering that the many children onstage were local performers who just joined the company for its Cleveland performances, it was a masterful demonstration of timing and execution, pulled off with seemingly effortless grace.
The perpetual motion kept any one dancer from dominating the stage until Michael Smith swept in as the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeyer, looking like Mandrake the Magician with an eyepatch. Restricted by his costume, he stayed earthbound for most of the night, but was a very effective ringmaster, towering over the other performers and guiding their movements. The company also had a chance to show off its technical finesse in fine turns by the mechanical dolls: Caitlin Meighan, Aaron Rogers, Anastacia Holden and Derrick Agnoletti.
The choreography became more chaotic when the mice took the stage, emerging in a cloud of smoke from the fireplace. Their battle with the soldiers was energetic and inventive, though it lacked the charm of the opening scene. A quick segue to the Land of Snow brought back the dazzle, with very convincing snow falling on the king, queen, and prince in solos and duets, and sparkling group routines by a cadre of silvery Snowflakes and Snow Winds.
The second half sagged, with much of the momentum seeming to dissipate from both the dancing and the music as Dr. Drosselmeyer and Clara (Katherine Minor) took seats to watch the famous series of exotic dances portraying Arabia, China, Russia, and the fairyland characters. With the shift from ensemble work to mostly solos, duets and small groups, and the set suddenly spare, the focus was entirely on the dancing, and some of the routines were simply not that strong. The dancers were game, but the energy level was noticeably different both onstage and in the audience, where many young children began to crawl onto their parents’ laps or fall asleep.
This points up one of the problems with The Nutcracker, which needs to appeal to an audience ranging from 3 to 93. The color and swirl of magnificent costumes and sets, along with the refrains of familiar holiday music, will initially hold everyone’s attention. But at some point a company like the Joffrey is going to want to showcase its dancers — an impeccably accomplished troupe, to judge from last night, but burdened with uneven choreography and an audience not very interested in their technical skills.
The drop-off in the music was harder to figure. It started off brisk and bright, but slowed noticeably in the second half, not just in tempo but in phrasing and tone, becoming almost ponderous at times. Tito Muñoz is an experienced maestro who spent three years as an assistant conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, but his metier seems to be more substantial fare. However, the orchestra’s glorious string section will save almost any performance, and it sounded lustrous in the State Theater pit. The orchestra’s Children’s Chorus added a nice burnish to the end of the first act, singing from offstage loges, though puzzlingly facing the stage rather than the audience, which muted the sound.
Still, for a holiday production, one would be hard-pressed to do better. The Cleveland Orchestra/Joffrey Ballet is as good a combination as there is anywhere in the country, and the Joffrey’s casting — racially mixed, with a disabled young man in a wheelchair prominent in the first act — adds a subtle but significant dimension to the performance. To set the tone for the season, this is a delightful gift the entire family will enjoy.