The San Francisco Ballet’s current “Nutcracker” uses 173 costumes, 42 pairs of pointe shoes, more than 59 pairs of tights and 18 wigs per show. It’s a contrast to 1944, when it made do with rhinestones from Goodwill and rationed fabric in what was the first production of the ballet in America.
Today, the show garners about 40 percent of the company’s ticket revenue each year, for good reason: “Nutcracker” is a crowd-pleasing romp, albeit with some room for improvement.
Storywise, the ballet is always a free-for-all, with most companies taking necessary liberties with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original, hallucinogenic story from 1815 about a girl who dreams her favorite Christmas toy, a nutcracker, takes her to a magical land of sweets.
The company’s production, running through Dec. 28, is set at the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco, but keeps the usual devices: a battle between toy soldiers and guerrilla mice, dancing snowflakes, waltzing flowers and a Sugar Plum Fairy.
Artistic director and choreographer Helgi Tomasson moves the opening party scene along swiftly, with children from the troupe’s school prancing around, impressively in sync.
If only the motion were better sustained in the battle scene, full of lackluster sword stabs instead of a more uproarious, chaotic battle. King of the Mice Sean Orza gives it his best shot, comically decked out in a regal purple velvet and ermine coat.
The snow scene is nothing to sneeze at. Bright, sprightly music is paired with equally brisk choreography, gossamer gowns and thousands of paper flakes pouring down in audible abundance.
New Australian recruit Luke Ingham is a studly King of the Snow, paired with the poised Sarah Van Patten as his Queen. The final flurry ends the first act with a bang, while the second opens with a whimper.
Baby butterflies and ladybugs — tiny ballet school students — flutter under the glass ceiling at the Conservatory of Flowers. It’s cute but cloying, reminiscent of a dance recital and a seeming waste of some of Tchaikovsky’s prettiest music.
The fact that “Nutcracker” is arguably the most popular ballet in the world, performed by professionals and amateurs, is largely due to Tchaikovsky’s danceable, dramatically precise score.
Tomasson doesn’t always do Tchaikovsky justice, and more physical alignment with the musical motifs wouldn’t hurt. The Arabian dance, with its protracted phrasing, is evocative, but wrist flicks and posturing seem to take up more time than inventive lifts or seductive stretches.
The Russian dancers are better used in a burst of leaps in the finale than in their own routine. The “Waltz of the Flowers,” while beautiful, could use fewer synchronized swimming formations and meatier movement.
No one can help but smile when Frances Chung is onstage, and her performance in the “Grand Pas de Deux” with Davit Karapetyan dazzles. She is charming and cheerful without being saccharine, and her eyes and épaulement are flirtatious and fun. And Karapetyan’s princely machismo makes the audience roar.
Presented by San Francisco Ballet
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. most Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Thursdays-Sundays; 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Dec. 24; no show Dec. 25; closes Dec. 28
Tickets: $20 to $270
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org