The second time around, Friday night, American Ballet Theatre's "Romeo and Juliet" -- newly staged for the company by choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan -- took on a dramatic resonance and tragic grip to match the visual opulence, atmosphere and grandiloquence the production had already exhibited during Thursday evening's premiere.

Kevin McKenzie gave the performance of his career as a dashing, love-drenched Romeo, and Susan Jaffe used her sensuous plasticity to splendid advantage as his Juliet.

Leslie Browne's impetuous, impassioned Juliet Thursday night -- much in the Lynn Seymour mold -- was the high point of the premiere, but Robert La Fosse's underdeveloped Romeo eviscerated the dramatic side of the ballet, and his dancing lacked compensating flash.

Friday night, both McKenzie and Jaffe danced superbly, and together they made a powerfully convincing pair of lovers. In so doing, they reaffirmed the trenchant craftsmanship of MacMillan's choreography, which is rooted in its dance characterizations, and needs a total cementing of technique and artistry to come to full flower.

McKenzie showed some insecurity of footing early on, but it didn't matter because his musicality and the serious ardor of his conception carried him through, and most of his dancing was as technically refined as it was elegant. His bristling fury in the duel with Tybalt gave the fight a thrilling edge.

Jaffe was perhaps overly kittenish before her meeting with Romeo, but one forgot this in the erotic sweep of her later scenes, and MacMillan's swirlingly romantic duets especially. She also achieved a wonderful spectral quality in the duet she reluctantly dances with Paris in the last act.

Because McKenzie and Jaffe brought the drama to life, the whole momentum of the ballet received new impetus -- the crowd scenes and the lovers' tale were felt as part of one inevitable, fateful torrent.

There was lots of help from other quarters as well. Gil Boggs had some trouble, as did Danilo Radojevic Thursday, with the wicked series of jumps and spins MacMillan devised for Mercutio, but he also showed us the mischievous firecracker the character was meant to be. Clark Tippet was an impressively cool, menacing Tybalt, and John Turjoman a likably cocky Benvolio. Susan Jones as the Nurse, John Taras as the Prince of Verona and as Friar Laurence, and Georgina Parkinson as Lady Capulet -- her florid anguish now given a credible background -- added significant enhancement with the characterizations they introduced opening night. Paul Connelly's conducting, moreover, seemed particularly attuned to the nuances of the Prokofiev score.

A third and final Washington cast for Saturday's matinee was better balanced, on the whole, than the one opening night, but the performance looked rather pallid beside the McKenzie-Jaffe triumph the night before. Marianna Tcherkassky brought, as usual, a lovely lyricism to her dancing, but her Juliet seemed too chaste to do justice to MacMillan's view of the heroine.

Robert Hill, her Romeo, stepped into the part as a substitute for injured Ross Stretton just a few days ago -- a promising corps de ballet member, only two years with ABT, he danced very well but his dramatic interpretation was understandably sketchy. In Johan Renvall the production finally found not only an appealing scamp of a Mercutio, but also one who could cope brilliantly with the role's taxing virtuosic demands.

Other new castings, however, seemed lackluster -- Michael Owen's Tybalt, Kathleen Moore's Nurse and David Richardson's Prince/Friar Laurence were no more than blandly adequate. CAPTION: Picture, Susan Jaffe and Kevin McKenzie in "Romeo." Copyright (c) Martha Swope