Although there are dozens of holiday productions around town, "Loyce Houlton's Nutcracker Fantasy" by Minnesota Dance Theatre always marks a high point in the year-end festivities. On opening night Friday at the Cowles Center, its celebratory spirits were clearly intact. It is a tradition, after all, designed to delight children, and it continues to do so under Lise Houlton's direction.

Due to a disagreement between MDT and the local musicians union over the number of players needed to adequately interpret the Tchaikovsky score, the show is being performed this year to taped music (as it was in 2011, but that was due to the lack of a working orchestra pit in the newly-opened Cowles). Hopefully this is the last time "Nutcracker Fantasy" goes unaccompanied.

While the extra sparkle and undeniable drama of live music was sorely missed on Friday, the dancers (professionals and students alike) still rose to the occasion, particularly 2012 Sage Award-winner Katie Johnson as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She delivered a technically agile and energetic take on one of ballet's iconic roles, ably partnered by Sam Feipel as the Cavalier in the Grand Pas de Deux, who took his own high-flying turns as well.

The character of Marie is central to the story - she receives the prized Nutcracker toy from Godfather Drosselmayer (a suitably mysterious Kevin Iverson) - and Zoe Derauf injects her performance with a sense of wonder and anticipation. Other young dancers - including the scurrying pack of pot-bellied mice and mischievous toys-come-to-life - assume their roles with an air of serious fun. Tiny dynamo Dora Dolphin pumps up the Russian Dance through bouncy acrobatics with the help of grown-up partners Will Bove and Stephen Schroeder.

Additional standouts include Christina Marchiori and General McArthur Hambrick's sultry version of the Arabian Dance as well as Helen Hatch's generous lead in the Waltz of the Flowers. And the corps of dancing snowflakes leap and swirl with an airy abandon typical of the winter storms we seem to see less of these days.

Some casting will differ for each show. Raina Gilliland (sublime in the role last year) and Kaitlyn Gilliland (formerly of New York City Ballet) will alternate as the Sugar Plum Fairy with Johnson. Guest artist Ask la Cour from New York City Ballet shares the part of Cavalier with Feipel.

Caroline Palmer writes about dance.