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They say the Christmas season starts earlier every year, and this year was certainly no exception. Well before December was even ready to make its entrance, Savannah hosted not one but two local Nutcracker ballet performances -- one by Ballet Savannah and the other by Columbia City Ballet.

For those who thought Thanksgiving weekend was a wee bit early for the Sugar Plum Fairy to be tip-toeing amid the gently falling snowflakes, there’s another performance of the beloved classic this weekend at the Lucas. This show not only in the actual Christmas season itself, but boasts something the other two performances cannot: A live orchestra.

Savannah Danse Theatre (SDT) began the new tradition last year, performing their locally themed Nutcracker In Savannah to the accompaniment of a live orchestra under the direction of Mary Woodmansee Green of the Hilton Head Orchestra.

While common in first-tier arts cities, dancing Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker to live accompaniment is comparatively rare for markets as small as Savannah. The potential pitfalls are legion, ranging from the cost of paying the musicians (nearly $40,000 for this production) to stringent union guidelines.

But SDT’s inaugural attempt at it in 2005 went so well, organizers say, they’ve been able to build on that success this year with an emphasis on more difficult choreography and more vivid costumes.

“It’s pretty remarkable how smooth it ran,” recalls SDT Artistic Director Suzanne Braddy.  “Musically there’s not a whole lot of change that will be needed this time, really just a matter of some different tempos in a few places. We’re not having to invent the wheel, but we still have to make it run again. It’s good to know that people really feel like it’s a worthy thing year after year to have a symphony.”

What started out as a lark -- rewriting some parts of the story to include specific Savannah references, such as making the soldiers members of the Chatham Artillery -- has taken on a life of its own.

“Going with that Nutcracker in Savannah theme, we’re finding out there’s so much creativity to be done with Savannah. It’s neverending,” says Braddy.

SDT builds on another tradition by again featuring a cameo by a local culinary celebrity during the baking scene. Two years ago the production featured Paula Deen, and last year’s featured Richard Gottlieb.

This year’s guest celebrity is Stratton Leopold, movie producer, ice cream store owner and Savannah native, who clued us in on the backstory.

“A classmate of mine at BC works with Suzanne’s husband, Glenn, at Braddy Electric. They asked him if he’d ask me if I would think about it,” Leopold says. “I said sure --it sounds like fun, frankly.”

Leopold says the ice cream store that bears his family name around the corner from the Lucas will feature a special flavor, Sugar Plum Fairy, in honor of the production.

What’s the main ingredient of a Sugar Plum Fairy ice cream cone?

“Magic,” laughs the multitalented entrepreneur without missing a beat.

Speaking of Sugar Plum Fairies: Karen Burns, who rotates that role with Roxanne Dickinson this year, has also done much of the choreography for this year’s show. She says the experience of working with a live orchestra last year has boosted the entire company’s dedication and skill level.

“The girls have gotten so much better in just this one year -- they’re dancing so much better even than they did in the last show,” Burns says. “For the choreography that’s been exciting, because I’m able to do more of the things I’ve wanted to do.”

Burns says it’s actually not that unusual to have so many Nutcrackers in one city.

“I’ve lived in so many different cities across the country, and the truth is a lot of cities do a lot of Nutcrackers. Often it’s a case of people going to a particular performance because friends and family are dancing in it. Then again, there are some people who go to all of them,” she says.

“If you have a tradition of going closer to Christmas, then certainly those people are going to come see our production,” she concludes. “But the bottom line is that the more, better dancing in this town, the better.”

Dancers in principal roles this year are Savannah Ruth (Clara), Julie Pizzat (Fritz), Ben Hankinson (Prince), Karen Burns & Roxanne Dickinson (Savannah Sugar Plum Fairy), Serguei Chtyrkov (Cavalier), Becca Martin and Amber Amick (Confederate Jasmine Fairy), Caroline Bragg (Snow Queen), John Cronin (Snow King) and Jacob Givens (Pirate King).

Special guest is Stratton Leopold. č


Savannah Danse Theatre and the Savannah Danse Theatre Orchestra perform The Nutcracker in Savannah Friday, Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 9 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 10 at 2 p.m. The ballet will be performed with live orchestra under the direction of Mary Woodmansee Green. Tickets are $30, $24 and $16. Children are $12. To order tickets, call 525-5050 or order online.