'Midsummer' a dreamy ballet

Julie Diana and Daniel Cooper in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Julie Diana and Daniel Cooper in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (ALEXANDER IZILIAEV)
Posted: March 12, 2013

'The course of true love never did run smooth," Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night's Dream, an "I love you, I hate you, I love you" theme that also runs through nearly every ballet.

It plays out in over-the-top fashion in George Balanchine's version of Midsummer, which the Pennsylvania Ballet opened Thursday night at the Academy of Music. Characters fall in and out of love over and over, thanks to the whims of Oberon (Jermel Johnson as the king of the fairies), a comedy of errors, and a little meddling from impish Puck, danced with impeccable comic timing by Alexander Peters.

Set to music of Mendelssohn's lush score, this Midsummer offers some special treats: 26 students from the newly reopened School of Pennsylvania Ballet fill out the cast as fairies, courtiers, hounds, and pages. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale performs live offstage during several scenes. And new this season are rich sets and sparkling costumes that the late Tony Award-winning designer Martin Pakledinaz created in 1997 for the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

The story takes a while to set up, then launches into hilarity. Thanks to Puck and a magic flower, affections are misplaced, misguided, and mistaken, reaching a climax of craziness when Titania - the delicate Julie Diana as the queen of the fairies - falls under the flower's spell and swoons for Bottom (Daniel Cooper), a lunk with the head of an ass. She places a crown of flowers over one of his long ears, promenades holding on to his snout, and tries to distract him from grazing long enough to bourrée offstage in his arms.

In classical story-ballet fashion, the second act is purely divertissement, entertaining dances that have little to do with the tale. On Thursday, some audience members found it confusing that the story mostly wrapped up in Act 1 and the cast came out for curtain calls; some left at intermission.

Indeed, Act 1 can stand on its own, but the bounteous Act 2 offers many rewards. It opens with the famous Mendelssohn "Wedding March" that accompanies a large procession of courtiers, followed by a triple nuptial for the couples, finally paired correctly - Hippolyta (Gabriella Yudenich, who attacked her jetés and pirouettes) and Theseus (James Ihde); Hermia (Abigail Mentzer) and Lysander (Jonathan Stiles); and Helena (Amy Aldridge) and Demetrius (Ian Hussey); all in color-coded costumes so we can keep them straight throughout the evening's antics.

From that point on, the ballet is pure party, featuring Lauren Fadeley and Zachary Hench as the delightful divertissement couple, backed by a large corps de ballet.

This Midsummer Night's Dream is an enchanting way to spend a late winter's evening or afternoon. Just make sure you stick around for the many charms of Act 2.

Contact Ellen Dunkel at edunkel@philly.com.