The night was wet and soggy, but inside on the theater stage the dancers were especially crisp and spirited as they opened Utah's 36th consecutive season of "The Nutcracker" Thursday night.

That's a lot of proud tradition, and even more seasonal joy, for an audience that must total in the hundreds of thousands over the years. And it appears that there will be no slacking off this year, for several performances are already sold out. Utah apparently has an insatiable appetite for "The Nutcracker," and fortunately the product is good.Wendee Fiedeldey and Robert Arbogast led the first cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, and they dance beautifully in one of the company's most seasoned partnerships. Fiedeldey looks strong and vital, with a sparkling smile and energetic, clean movement, and Arbogast executed his bravura sections with confident vitality. They are just the sort of fairytale characters you expect and want to welcome you to the land of sweets.

Let me count the ways I like this "Nutcracker":

- An inviting party scene, with the sort of homey good cheer that makes you want to join right in. This year's children are about as natural and free from preciousness as you could normally expect, but they need to be always on guard not to ham it up. Even that's some advantage; it's easier to scale down than to scale up.

- Maggie Wright's maid, who takes charge with a great deal of personality; she's learning to smile a pretty smile, which lingers on to enhance the charms of the lead Mirliton.

- Bruce Caldwell's mysterious but lovable Drosselmeyer.

- The perky mechanical doll of Bridget Boutin and gruff mechanical bear of Scott Marble. The bear's dance looks easy, but nothing is easy under so much hot fur.

- A peppy soldier and mouse fight, always a highlight with its intricate drill and wrenching death of the Mouse King, complete with CPR. And are you ever quite ready for that miniature cannon blast?

- The regal Snow Queen and Prince of Lisa Lockerd and Raymond Van Mason, who sweep through with effortless aplomb; a good match in spirit as well as physique.

- The Russian variation with its opening-night five men, whose vigorous, authentic-looking Trepak always stops the show. (May one suggest that Willam Christensen's interpretation is nearer the mark than the tame Russian variation of the Baryshnikov film? Indeed, I prefer many of Ballet West's variations to those of the American Ballet Theatre film.)

- Mother Buffoon and her skirtful of moppets who please, year after year, with their cunning tricks.

- The poised and magical partnership of Jennifer Demko and Jiang Qi in the Waltz of the Flowers - a pair of small, exquisite dancers perfectly suited to each other.

- The hard-working women's corps, who fill multiple assignments with strength and grace.

- A series of effervescent variations into which all company artists pour themselves without reservation. One might single out the cocky Chinaman of Christopher Young, and the sinuous Arabian of Rachel del Valle and Cameron McNinch.

- The jubilant finale where dancers from each variation skim across and finally join in one of those irresistible Petipa-Tchaikovsky windups that demand an ovation.

- The consistently good orchestral music, well-conducted and coordinated by David Van Alstyne. Welcome back, orchestra! You never miss the water 'til the well runs dry.

Things I'm not so crazy about:

- Maybe just a little too much character in the party scene, where the background couples can get a little carried away. The idea to characterize is good, if not distracting from stage center action. And the grandparents totter and busybody around far beyond what's believable.

- I'm missing the Christensen jump, that little surge of power with which the soldiers began all their important sequences in the old days. Their drill is lively, but that jump establishes the Christensen mood, gives definition and sets the energy in motion.

So, Ballet West is off to the seasonal marathon that gives practically everybody a chance at a good part and provides Salt Lake City with one of its best-loved traditions. You'll have fun if you go.