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The Hard Nut Cracks Scrooges Everywhere

Sitting in a darkened theater with hundreds of people waiting for a show to start can be a very life-affirming experience (as opposed to the soul-deadening moment when you realize your garlic bagel is less chewy than expected) - and never more so than when the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra plays the opening salvo of Tchaikovsky's famed holiday score. But this is no ordinary, ever-so-slightly saccharine rendition of The Nutcracker. Mark Morris' update is replete with dazzling color, gender creative casting, and unmatched physical comedy.

Beginning with a grooving '70s Christmas soiree, the aforementioned gender-bending is at full throttle - as is the tippling and saucy flirting. At midnight, remote control rats with glowing red eyes glide about the stage and GI Joe soldiers wearing beige polyester muscles leap to defend the household. Then comes the piece de resistance, "The Waltz of the Snowflakes", a gut-busting example of what happens when men and women don short skirts with ruffle-butt leotards to enthusiastically hurl confetti.

Blithely stamped with Morris' spirit and comic genius, The Hard Nut is a brilliant retelling of the classic. One viewing and even the most stalwart Scrooge will relent on the subject of seasonal ballet.

December 17-20 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. Tickets are $36-62. (510) 642-9988 or www.calperformances.net.