The South Carolina Ballet is returning to Savannah with its 50th anniversary production of "Nutcracker."

Only one performance will be presented, on Nov. 25 at the Savannah Civic Center. The latest version was created by the company's executive and artistic director, William Starrett, but "Nutcracker" was first performed by the South Carolina Ballet in 1967.

"It is the longest, continuously running performing arts event in South Carolina," Starrett says. "It will be touring eight cities across the Southeast."

The production will feature 29 professional dancers and more than 150 local children, ages 4 to 16. Nationally known actors, including Katherine LaNasa and Grant Show, and local celebrities, including Rick Henry and Judi Gatson, also will be part of the production.

"This is a professional production replete with sets, scenery and costumes," Starrett says. "This isn't just a 'go to it because your neighbor is in it' kind of experience - it's a fully professional, once-in-a-lifetime holiday event."

The ballet tells the story of a little girl named Clara, who receives a nutcracker as a Christmas gift from her uncle, Drosselmeyer. At the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, Clara sees the nutcracker magically transform into a life-sized prince and battle the Mouse Queen.

When Clara throws her slipper at the Mouse Queen and saves the Prince, the two enter the magical Land of Sweets and meet the Sugar Plum Fairy, who is portrayed by South Carolina Ballet's Regina Willoughby.

To honor Clara, sweets from all over the world perform for her. In the end, a final waltz is performed, where visions of sugar plums dance in Clara's head.

"The South Carolina Ballet is 57 years old, but they didn't produce 'The Nutcracker' until 1967," Starrett says. "We're pulling out all the stops. We love bringing it to Savannah, which is such a Christmasy town.

"We've been rehearsing since August. We have 200 costumes. We've been building on this production for 50 years."

The troupe aims to make each year better than the last.

"Every year, we try to top ourselves," he says "I change it up to keep it different. There are a lot of new surprises."

This year's surprises include a new throne for Clara, a Land of Sweets shaped like cupcakes, some surprises in the battle scenes and much, much more.

"We have a brand-new Mother Ginger costume," Starrett says. "I've really been inspired by the wedding gown of Marie Antoinette."

Savannah is the third city on the tour, and the production's largest stage.

"We love being in the civic center. We often sell out," he says. "We purposely planned the time at 5:30 p.m. That's not too late, and is a great time. We want to encourage everyone to get tickets."

Starrett notes that the South Carolina Ballet is a truly professional dance company.

"But children do dance appropriate roles like mice and bon bons," he says. "The innocence of children and their dancing really contrasts and brings a wonderful dynamic to the production.

"A lot of people think of 'Nutcracker' as a recital. This is a Broadway show. The roles are all done by professionals who are paid as a fully professional company.

"A lot of parents don't understand that," Starrett says. "It's not an outlet for a dancing school. It's an economic engine for the community."

The show's longevity is testament to its greatness, Starrett says.

"Anything that's endured and is this beloved, it's got to be good," he says. "We really want Savannah to get to experience it.

"A lot of people say, 'We'll see it next year. What I'm hoping is that people understand if they have wonderful arts and outings they can do, the best way to support them is to see them.

"Early on, you can tell it's going to be a special production," Starrett says. "Everyone is giving their all this year. I love to see everyone get into the holiday spirit."


What: South Carolina Ballet's 50th anniversary "Nutcracker"

When: 5:30 p.m. Nov. 25

Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

Cost: $20 to $40