Taking my seat at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, I could sense the dread of some of the parents around me.
I watched mothers and fathers stoically fulfill a holidaytime obligation to their little ones as families packed into the auditorium for an afternoon performance Dec. 11.
I sat there, wedged between two pairs of mothers with their small daughters dressed in their Sunday best. One of the little girls wore her hair in pigtails with pink bows. She clutched a teddy bear as she climbed into her folding seat.
Imagining myself in the parents' shoes, I — a childless bachelor — expected that I would be joining them in having to endure two hours of "Nutcracker" purgatory. Yet, after the curtain went up, to my surprise and delight, I found myself whisked away to the Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets.
I was 8 years old again.
This was my first time experiencing a live production of "The Nutcracker." During my childhood in New York, I came closest to this yuletide favorite and its unmistakable notes by composer Peter I. Tchaikovsky when my mother took me to a screening of Walt Disney's "Fantasia."
This time around, the story, as presented by the Fountain Valley-based Festival Ballet Theatre company through its magical sets and costumes, along with world-class performances by guest stars of the New York-based American Ballet Theatre, came alive and enchanted me. So much so that I went back to the Irvine Barclay for a second helping on Dec. 16.
That's saying a lot coming from someone like me, who's not a ballet guy at heart. Tutus and leotards are not really my thing.
Given the abundance of "Nutcracker" productions in and around Orange County, it must be awfully confusing for all these moms and dads to have make a choice.
The various productions range in quality and professionalism. Chances are, the ones offering tickets at the lower end of the price band will give you what you paid for. Having seen it myself, I can attest that parents will get their money's worth — and might even enjoy themselves — if they go see the Festival Ballet's 23rd annual production of "The Nutcracker," choreographed and directed by Salwa Rizkalla.
The production might lack the purist's preference for a live orchestra accompanying the ballet dancing. When I went, canned music was piped in through speakers and the performances by some of the dancing boys and girls were somewhat wooden and off-key. But, heck, they were awfully cute on stage, especially when they appeared dressed as mice.
Most of these productions have come and gone, but as of Thursday three shows of the Festival Ballet's "Nutcracker" remained, along with five presented through a separate rendition by the Surf City-based Ballet Repertory Theatre at the Golden West College Mainstage Theater, which I haven't seen.
In the Festival Ballet production, Huntington Beach's Tyler Donatelli, who just turned 15, is one of three O.C. girls rotating in the most coveted of the children's parts, Little Clara.
I saw Tyler as Clara on Dec. 16, and she was scheduled to reprise the role for the last time this season during the evening performance on Dec. 22. In the production's final performance on Christmas Eve, she will switch for one more time to a coveted supporting role, that of the Harlequinette, according to the program.
"It inspires you to act better, and it teaches you to become a different person on stage and you just have to practice a lot harder for it," Tyler told me after I caught up with her following the Dec. 16 show and asked her about what is was like to play Little Clara.
The freshman at Huntington Beach High School said that learning to act while executing the ballet steps was the greater challenge for her.
She expressed awe at being able to dance on the same stage with Gillian Murphy and Gennadi Saveliev, guest stars from the American Ballet Theatre, who, in the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier, performed a sublime Grand Pas de Deux toward the close of Act II.
"It's amazing, it's inspiring, and it just makes you want to work much harder to be able to be them some day," said Tyler, who has been dancing with the Festival Ballet and its feeder Southland Ballet Academy since the age of 5, and dreams of a professional career as a ballerina.
When I went to the show on Dec. 11, I got to see Ashley Ike, 18, of Newport Beach, dance in the role of Clara. Both hers and Tyler's respective performances as Clara delighted me and warmed the cockles of this ballet ignoramus's heart.
I felt slightly awkward sitting there alone without any of my own children, but I became as rapt with the show as the little stranger sitting nearby. When the Nutcracker Prince stabbed the mean Mouse King in the middle of Act I, the girl, who was perched on the edge of her seat, turned to face me. Her brown eyes widened and locked onto mine. We exchanged a conspiratorial look.
At the Dec. 16 performance, Phoenix Abe, 8, and her sister Indigo, 5, both Newport Beach residents, were in the theater's foyer during intermission, checking out the shiny, all-wood Nutcracker toys, which even I was tempted to buy.
"I liked it because it's a little scary and it's fun, too," replied Phoenix, a third-grader at Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach, when I pressed her for her assessment of the show so far.
"The mice have red eyes, and they're big."
IMRAN VITTACHI is features editor for the Huntington Beach Independent, the Daily Pilot and Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. He may be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @ImranVittachi.
If You Go
What: "The Nutcracker" productions by Festival Ballet Theatre at the Irvine Barclay Theatre (4242 Campus Drive, Irvine) and by the Ballet Repertory Theatre at the Golden West College Mainstage Theater (15744 Goldenwest St., Huntington Beach).