To begin with sets and costumes in a Charlotte Ballet “Nutcracker” may seem disrespectful to dancers and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, so I’ll get this on the record: He assigned big roles to strong soloists, as usual, and wisely updated familiar choreography.
Now to the big question: What did the million-dollar donation by the McColl family buy? A show that sparkles literally as soon as the light hits the drop curtain and metaphorically from end to end. Costume designer Holly Hynes and set designer Alain Vaes beautifully worked out big concepts and small details.
Take Vaes’ set for the Land of Sweets in Act 2. It’s a domed pavilion with the usual candy canes and gumdrops, but there’s a sense of mystery in the distant hills seen beyond pillars. The darkened heavens glitter through a dome, where stars yield a deeper sense of wonder. Yet in the Stahlbaum house, paintings on the walls seem entirely lifelike. And he has been so extravagant that an orange dragon with a flamelike tail descends over the “Tea” number for two minutes.
Hynes’ hats, opulent and outrageous, stop the show visually as soon as the first guests arrive. (Was that a stuffed bird on one woman’s head?) At the same time, she combines small effects cleverly. In the Waltz of the Flowers, dancers wear green bodices with tendril-like arm straps above tutus in multiple shades of pink. Rose herself is all in pink, with a bodice flaring to soft layers of cloth cut like petals. They’re flora come to life.
Bonnefoux uses Vaes’ cutouts wittily; guests drape coats over a prop “maid,” and a flirtatious guest yawningly drapes an arm around her shoulders. (But where are the promised deer in the snow scene? One poked out a snout, then shyly withdrew.) Bonnefoux has reimagined characters, too: Drosselmeyer is more of a hambone prankster, signing autographs and freezing party guests to amuse Clara (winning Rosie Morrison at the Saturday matinee).
Christopher James Lees is also new to the show, conducting the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. He led the first act with vigor and without haste, supporting dancers buoyantly. In the second act, he aimed for dreaminess but mostly drooped: The Sugar Plum-Cavalier pairing had no sense of ecstasy, and the “Tiramisu” tarantella turned into a lazy lope.
Charlotte Ballet’s production runs at Belk Theater Dec. 4, 13-18 and 21-23. Tickets cost from $25 to $125. Details: 704-372-1000 or charlotteballet.org.