The Christmas party that unfolds in the Kansas City Ballet's "Nutcracker" is quite sweet, but it's the after-party — a.k.a. the battle scene — that really kicks things up a notch. That's when the Mouse King rolls onstage astride a giant sardine can, like a furry, humpbacked Napoleon. His minions go to war armed with spoons, fountain pens and cheese balls.
And then, because this is a particularly satisfying fantasy, it's all cleaned up. Every crumb! By the time the cannon fire clears, the victorious toy soldiers have compelled the surviving rodents, at sword-point, to sweep the stage.
This handsome production, which opened Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House and continues through Sunday, positively oozes charm. A prologue introduces us to the toymaker Dr. Drosselmeier, struggling to gift-wrap his misbehaving dolls. Reindeer prance through the Kingdom of the Snow in white bootees and pert satin skirts. A hot-air balloon wafts young Clara, our heroine with the overactive dream life, from scene to scene.
Drosselmeier, however, needs no clever conveyance. At one point he simply flies away, zooming above the stage, his black cape billowing.
This little-traveled company from the Midwest is an unusual choice for the Kennedy Center's annual "Nutcracker" run, but it's easy to see why it won over the programmers. Artistic Director Devon Carney's version of the holiday ballet, created just two years ago, is especially lovely with its bright, fresh decor. The eye stays busy taking in the storybook sets and props by French painter Alain Vaes and carefully designed Victorian costumes by the veteran Holly Hynes.
Kansas City Ballet Music Director Ramona Pansegrau conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in the Tchaikovsky score.
With 36 company members and apprentices, this troupe is smaller than the typical Opera House guest, and at times during the second-act divertissements, the stage looked a bit bare. Its second company, KCB II, plus trainees and local dance students, helped fill out the production.
This is a solidly traditional account of the familiar story, with a formal Christmas Eve gathering leading into a child's reverie of sweets and playthings. There is no complicated psychology in play here. Carney's choreography is clear and elegant, tending toward restraint and classical purity. The exquisite snow scene was a major showpiece. You couldn't ask for a more transporting winter storm, amid frost-coated trees in bluish light, with the snowflakes in silvery-blue gowns and icicle crowns whirling in ever-shifting patterns. It is all light, swift and magical.
Among the many standout performers, Maggie Crist as Clara deserves special mention. Crist is an enchanting actor and dancer, and I felt quite a pang at her moment of shock when the lively Alexander Santiago, as Clara's brother Fritz, tore her Nutcracker doll's head off.
The hardest-working performers of all were the members of the second company and its trainees. A close read of the program revealed that some of the ladies in those ranks were not merely double- or triple-cast but danced four roles: parents in the party scene (and the moms wear pointe shoes here, which isn't the norm, making their party exertions that much more difficult), plus snowflakes, French shepherds and flowers. I imagine them staggering to the ice bucket after the bows, though really there should be champagne in that bucket, and toasts delivered in honor of these true heroes of the holiday launch.
The Nutcracker by the Kansas City Ballet, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. through Sunday. $59-$175. 202-467-4600 or kennedy-center.org.