CHAPEL HILL — The success of Carolina Ballet's revised "Nutcracker" Sunday in Memorial Hall was easy to measure. The gasps after each eye-popping illusion, the applause for the handsome new sets, and the rapt attention from all the children confirmed the changes were worth it.
After 10 years of annual performances, Carolina Ballet decided to revamp its "Nutcracker," allowing artistic director Robert Weiss to fulfill his dream of having professional magic effects. With the help of Las Vegas magician Rick Thomas, the party tricks toymaker Drosselmeyer performs in Act I were enlarged, appearances and disappearances were made more spectacular, and new illusions were added to the opening and the finale.
We don't want to spoil these new effects, so one description will have to suffice. In a new scene played out during the overture, Drosselmeyer asks his young nephew to help work on a party trick. Drosselmeyer shuts his nephew into a freestanding box and cranks down a metal plate, crushing him. Drosselmeyer takes out the rectangle of his flattened nephew, puts it into his bag and goes to the Christmas party. There Drosselmeyer puts the bag on top of a table, whose underside is open to view, and slowly pulls out the full-sized nephew.
Other illusions even more awe-inspiring make dazzling impact against Jeff A. R. Jones' beautiful new sets. The lovely, windowed dome in the party scene lets in the star-filled, snowy night and the delicious pastels of the Land of Sweets make a beautiful backdrop for Judanna Lynn's stunning costumes.
On Sunday, Dameon Nagel's Drosselmeyer had engaging flair and Jack Thomas' Nephew/Nutcracker was a model of confidence and precision. Among many fine soloists, standouts included Oliver Béres' high-flying Candy Cane, Lara O'Brien's limber Coffee and Margaret Severin-Hansen's exquisite Butterfly.
With so many new elements, Sunday's performance was understandably somewhat tentative, an aspect that should smooth out over the next three weekends. Most audiences won't care that the new party tricks require slowing some of the music or that they call so much attention to themselves. More distracting is the giant storybook at the party from which local celebrities appear as themselves, contradicting the story's time period.
Quibbles aside, this new "Nutcracker" should attract audiences for years to come with its dramatically upgraded illusions and its splendid new settings.