'Nutcracker' sizzles with special effects

It's a gift, to be sure - but one so resplendently wrapped that the contents can't possibly compete with the elaborate exterior packaging.

That's Nevada Ballet Theatre's new edition of "The Nutcracker," which opened Saturday at The Smith Center and continues next weekend.

The company's latest version of the holiday perennial arrives on the Reynolds Hall stage with every bit of its $2 million budget on display - in the form of elaborate sets, fanciful costumes and knock-your-Christmas-socks-off special effects, from a Victorian doll house that opens before your eyes to a giant rocking horse that floats across a snow-dappled sky with the greatest of ease.

And before each act, there's a written synopsis, projected ("Star Wars"-style) onto the Reynolds Hall curtain, so you'll be certain to follow all the action.

At least that seems to be the idea. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

But this "Nutcracker" - choreographed by NBT artistic director James Canfield to Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky's imperishable score - presumes you'll be so bedazzled by the pretty pictures on stage you won't care.

Set "once upon a time, at the beginning of the modern age," this "Nutcracker" begins at a glittering Victorian Christmas party.

There, Clara (a sprightly Sarah Fuhrman ) - still a girl, but not for much longer - receives a special gift from her mysterious, man-of-the-world godfather Drosselmeyer (an elegant Kirk Ryder). It's a nutcracker, decked out in a scarlet soldier's uniform very much like the one worn by Drosselmeyer's nephrew (dashing Grigori Arakeylan ), who seems to be paying much more attention to Clara's older sister Louise (Briley Jozwiak ).

That is, until the party ends - and Clara's dreams begin, as the clock chimes midnight and the valiant Nutcracker comes to life, leading his wooden-soldier comrades in battle against the evil Rat King (a suitably stealthy Walter Gutierrez ) and his rodent regiment.

Clara's intervention ensures the Nutcracker's victory - and transforms him into a charming human prince who accompanies our heroine through multiple wonderlands, winter and otherwise.

Along the way, they encounter (among others), a Winter Fairy (Alissa Dale) and her Snow Prince (Steven Goforth ), the ethereal Sugar Plum Fairy (Amy Von Handorf ) and an it's-a-small-world lineup of Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian dancers. To say nothing of Mother Ginger and her little Gingersnaps, played by a host of adorable NBT dance students whose eager capering brings endearing - and most welcome - charm to the proceedings.

Enjoy such simple pleasures while you can, because for much of this "Nutcracker," it's often tough to see the dancers for the trees. And snowflakes. And giant clocks, which turn into giant doors. And trees with trunks that look like a little girl's intertwined braids. And ... well, you get the idea.

The ballet's extravagant scenic designs - by Cirque du Soleil veteran Patricia Ruel - and Sandra Woodall's glittering costumes are consistently ingenious and frequently breathtaking. So much so that, on opening night, they earned at least as much applause as the dancers themselves.

And that, in a nutshell, is what keeps this "Nutcracker" - to my mind, anyway - from delivering all the magic it's trying so mightily to conjure. (But if, like Mae West, you believe that too much of a good thing can be wonderful, then this "Nutcracker's" for you.)

There's so much going on all over the place all the time that the dancers sometimes seem lost amid the pageantry and eye-popping effects.

A case in point: Act I's Snow Scene pas de deux, in which dancers Dale and Goforth look as though they're twirling inside an all-shook-up snow globe, having to compete with whirling make-believe snowflakes falling in front of a backdrop boasting its own giant snowflakes - and an even more massive full moon.

Another, even more telling example, emerges in Act II's "Arabian Dance," in which Mary LaCroix and Nicholas Card cut through the clutter of the dance's peacock theme with a sleek, sinuous pas de deux. That is, until the moment Card unfurls his dazzling peacock plumage, shifting the focus away from the dance itself and back to the ballet's undeniably spectacular trappings.

Throughout, the orchestra (under the direction of Jack Gaughan , recently of "Phantom - The Las Vegas Spectacular") brings Tchaikovsky's entrancing score to life, capturing everything from the rousing "Russian Dance" to the lilting "Waltz of the Flowers" with energy and elegance.

It's the one element of NBT's new "Nutcracker" that seems refreshingly content to let the magic happen -and confident that magic will happen - without any over-the-top embellishments.

At least this "Nutcracker" delivers its numerous embellishments with determined, can-you-top-this flair. And that, come to think of it, makes it a very Vegas "Nutcracker" indeed.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.