It began as business as usual--frothy, perky and docile--on Saturday afternoon at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, when the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago again presented "The Nutcracker" to a warm, attentive crowd. But energy sagged and spirits waned as onstage activities too often resembled a "Nutcracker Lite."
Despite the vibrant set and wide-toothed grins and buoyant skips of the wonderful cast of children, a bravado, fevered pitch never quite was attained. The only truly soaring moment occurred when Drosselmeyer (a benign Tomi Paasonen) and Clara (an unprepossessing Diana Garcia-Daganzo) took off in the nifty balloon of the second-act finale.
Giving their all, which, unfortunately, was never enough, were Cynthia Giannini and Davis Robertson as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince. Robertson, tall and intensely focused with regality to spare, partnered Giannini effectively, reaching climactic moments to match Tchaikovsky's emotional score. Indeed, their pairing was smooth, albeit contained. As if Robertson had utilized all of his strengths on the pas de deux, though, his solo flagged, producing hard, shaky landings and less than lofty leaps.
Giannini, not blessed with elegance of line, demonstrated sprightly charms, proving herself precise on turns. One longed, however, for fire; one received instead a kind of by-the-book balletic apathy.
Suzanne Lopez and John Sheaffer hopelessly attempted to rule the silvery snow tableau as Snow Queen and King. But Sheaffer's strain at lifting Lopez was all too apparent, painfully etched on his face like a Cubist grin, while Lopez's cheerful demeanor belied majesty. She did execute some handsome floor splits, however.
All was not lost: A crisp female corps ably held their own, and Thomas H. Jensen managed to mine muscular beauty from the Pacific Symphony. Still, one hopes 1997 might bring a bit more than comfort and near joy from the normally robust, ebullient Joffrey.