It's that time of the year when everyone seems to go slightly mad.

The Nutcracker, however, with all the colours of Tchaikovsky's music epitomises the genuine magic of the "silly season" and the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Ryman Healthcare season is no exception.

Under the blanket of freshly fallen snow, toymaker Herr Drosselmeier (Nicholas Schultz) gives the final touches to the gifts he will present to his godchildren at the Stahlbaum family Christmas party. Young mischievous Fritz (Lukas Maher) receives a large mouse while his romantic and dreamy sister, Marie (Katherine Minor), is delighted with a nutcracker.

The magic begins as witching hour strikes. A restless Marie finds herself in the thick of a battle between the notorious Mouse King (Paul Mathews) and the toy soldiers led by her beloved Nutcracker (Fabio Lo Giudice). Inevitable success leads to the defeat of the Mouse King's army and a wondrous journey to Marzipan castle, the home of the Sugarplum Fairy (Sara Garbowski) and her Cavalier (Alexandre Ferreira).

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It's a tight and well-paced two hours (including a 20-minute interval) and, for the most part, effortlessly charms the audience with magical projections, excellent ensemble work by the corps de ballet and exquisite pas de deux by the principal dancers. Garbowski and Ferreira, in particular, are excellent as the hosts of the Marzipan Castle and so is Mayu Tanigaito as Dewdrop. Minor and Lo Giudice are also memorable as the young couple in the first flush of love.

The costumes, including a stunning bouquet of pōhutakawa flowers (New Zealand's contribution to the international gifts) given to the young couple, are, for the most part, the right balance of frothing tulle, sequins and bright colours. The Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and French contingents always tend to come off as slightly stereotypical and, unfortunately, this was the case again, with rather unspectacular cultural performances.

But overall, Val Caniparoli's choreography delivers. The heightened points of drama seem to have dropped a notch and on opening night the dance and music (by the APO who are almost always en pointe) was consistently a beat behind creating awkward segues. The children from the local ballet schools, as with any production of The Nutcracker, were a highlight, and all performed with verve and commitment.

With so many productions of The Nutcracker, it's hard not to compare. Nevertheless, while admittedly on the lite side, this is a perfectly satisfactory production with some notable moments of exceptional performance.

What: The Nutcracker
Where & when: The Civic, until Sunday; Bruce Mason Centre; Friday, December 14 & Saturday, December 15
Reviewed by: Dione Joseph