FORT WORTH -- It's hard to imagine that Ben Stevenson's The Nutcracker could top last year's production, but indeed, that's what has happened with this all-new production, the first time Stevenson has given it a major face-lift since his arrival at Texas Ballet Theater a decade ago.
The production, with gorgeous sets and costumes from the defunct Florida Ballet, is filled with spectacle; when the dancers aren't soaring off the ground, they're flying above the stage in various contraptions.
The Angel on the top of the Stahlbaum's tree is the first flying feat, as she floats above the stage. Later, the Nutcracker Prince whisks Clara (Alexandra Farber) away in a swan sleigh that ascends to the rafters.
In the second act, the dancers of the Arabian variation (Katelyn Clenaghan and Alexander Kotelenets, in a beautiful pas de deux) enter the stage on a flying carpet, and the Chinese dancers (Drake Humphreys and Jomanuel Velazquez) descend from the top of the theater on velvet ribbons, and then tumble over each other as they fight with a sword and a stick.
All the spectacle doesn't distract, but rather perfectly accompanies the real stars of the show: the dancers and Stevenson's choreography. In years past, his opening party scene has been the rare exception to the rule that in most Nutcrackers, this is the section that you can't wait to be over. This time, his guests are just as rowdy as before, but in more grotesque ways, such as Old Anntie (Jaclyn Gill) and her daughter, in fat suits and armed with focus-stealing comic acting.
The toy scenes, with Harlequine (Velazquez), Columbine (Robin Bangert) and the Soldier Doll (Simon Wexler), are a marvel of physical control as they stay rigidly flexible, robotic, as dolls, loosening up as they gain mortal qualities. The mice costumes, with children of the TBT School inside, are fantastic; as are the soldiers and their choreography for their battle.
In the second act, the show-stopping choreography does just that, many times over. Carolyn Judson is luminous and a force en pointe as the Sugar Plum Fairy; her Nutcracker Prince, Lucas Priolo, is athletic and commanding. As the Snow Queen and King, Betsy McBride and Carl Coomer are equally captivating.
The Spanish variation is the most different from Stevenson's divertissements of the past, which is fine, because the Chinese and the Gopak (danced by an energetic Thomas Kilps) are so thrilling they don't need to change.
Stevenson's final twist comes in the casting of Madame Bonbonniere (Mother Ginger in most productions), with Paul Adams playing her top half in hilarious drag. As for her bottom half, that's a sight gag you'll have to see for yourself.
Stevenson's new Nutcracker is filled with humor and awe-inspiring sights, not least of which is the talent of TBT's dancers, who are as good as they've ever been in Stevenson's tenure here. Now if they can just get back to live music.
It should be noted that there are five different casts for TBT's Nutcracker. This cast repeats at the Dec. 16 matinee and the Dec. 23 evening performance.