From the moment the Paramount curtain rises on the snow-globe scene of Drosselmeyer putting the finishing touches on a nutcracker doll to the final picture of sleeping Marie attended by the characters from the Kingdom of Sweets, the company presents two hours of delightful, occasionally heart-stopping, dance.
This production was conceived by founding artistic director Ronn Guidi and Ron Steger, with sets based on Victorian and Russian Christmas cards in rich colors of milk chocolate, caramel and rose.
Guidi's "Nutcracker" has always been more about dance than spectacle, but there's plenty of the requisite magical elements, and humor, to go around: The family Christmas tree grows mysteriously, and the mice warm their little bottoms before the fire. And the three pas de deux Snow, Rose and the Sugar Plum Fairy are simply lovely.
Guidi has jettisoned the big first-act party for an intimate family Christmas Eve. Here, Marie (a charming Mariko Takahashi), her sister Louise (Zara Hayes) and brother Fritz (Kevin Atkinson) struggle with their governess (an appealing Genevieve Custer) for an early peek at the tree and presents hidden behind a screen.
The arrival of Drosselmeyer (Howard Sayette, Oakland's former longtime ballet master), his handsome nephew
After Marie and the toy soldiers defeat the Mouse King (James Atkinson) in battle at one point the mice fight with pink parasols it's off through a snowstorm to the Kingdom of Sweets. Act 2 ends as Marie and the nephew, now a Prince, sail through the snowflakes in a little boat.
Ilana Goldman and Matthew Linzer were an elegant Snow Queen and Cavalier, and they happily get to dance in Act 2 when they bring Marie and the Prince to the Kingdom of Sweets to meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and all the dancing "Nutcracker" candies we know and love.
The act opens with an "aww" moment involving Drosselmeyer, now the Major Domo for the activities, and a troupe of tiny Angels, who, along with four Courtiers, are Oakland Ballet student dancers.
Gianna Davy and Preston Dugger III were definite crowd-pleasers as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Dugger especially was a joy to watch, executing his effortless multiple pirouettes and graciously partnering Davy. Cynthia Sheppard, substituting for the injured Phaedra Jarrett, and Carlos Venturo made an exquisite Rose Queen and her Cavalier.
In the "candy" variations, Custer and Damon Mahoney were tasty Spanish Chocolate, and Jennifer Tierney was a sinewy presence in Arabian Coffee, while her partner, Joseph Copley, made good use of a long cloth drape. The men of Russian Licorice (Kevin Atkinson, Kevin Jackson, Ethan Knapp) took great delight in chasing the Chinese Tea ladies (Rita Duclos, Hayes, Paunika Jones) across the stage, but got the French Bon-Bons (Anna Kreager, Yuka Omori) in the end when the girls tired of watching the narcissistic Ram (James Atkinson).
Twenty students from the Piedmont Ballet Academy galloped around to torment Mother Ginger (Harriet McMeekin), who kept losing track of the very littlest one.
This is community-based ballet at its finest, even if it meant a couple of audience members ignored the theater's restriction on taking flash photos during the performance. Throughout, the company artists were beautiful dancing animals, snowflakes and waltzing flowers.
The production is a watershed for the ballet, which scrapped its entire season last year to concentrate on getting its financial house in order. It's unfortunate that economics forced the company to abandon earlier plans to have the Oakland East Bay Symphony play, because live music always provides a richer dance experience. But a successful season this year should encourage the company to use live music in the future. (In fact, musicians connected with Musicians Union Local 6 picketed the Paramount Theatre prior to Monday's matinee.)
The company's first two programs were well received; this "Nutcracker," which has final performances this afternoon and Wednesday, deserves the same.