THE NUTCRACKER: 617-695-6955, bostonballet.org Less Disney-esque, more sophisticated: That was Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s goal in re-imagining “The Nutcracker.” Mission accomplished. Award-winning set and costume designer Robert Perdziola emulates the elegant Regency period (think Jane Austen) for Act 1, with the cartoonish Drosselmeier now a heartthrob. Act 2 dazzles with lavish colors, sumptuous fabrics, and 200,000 glistening jewels. The new sets are amazing and the freshened choreography charming. Performances run through December 30.
BOSTON FESTIVAL OF INDIE GAMES: bostonfig.com The implosion of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios this year taught us that lavish funding can be detrimental to creating fantastic video games. Luckily, the Boston Festival of Indie Games at MIT helped return game development to its DIY home-grown spirit. In September, some 2,000 participants test-drove garden-fresh video games, as well as board and card games, from nearly 50 local and regional upstarts. Talks, film screenings, and an art show rounded out the festival, which is expected to be even bigger when it returns in 2013.
BOSTON NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK VISITOR CENTER: Faneuil Hall, Boston, 617-242-5642, nps.gov/boston Tourists lost in the Revolutionary streets of Boston once stumbled into a dank, outdated National Park visitor center on State Street to find their way. No longer. In May, a fresh, tech-savvy HQ opened in Faneuil Hall, the city’s historical mother ship. Designed and built entirely by local firms, the cheerier digs are chock-full of information kiosks about the Freedom Trail and the Black Heritage Trail, in addition to materials on parks and historic sites throughout Massachusetts. Downloadable smartphone apps and iPad stations let visitors map out custom-designed walking tours, making the center a model for how the Park Service can use technology.
BOSTON PHILHARMONIC YOUTH ORCHESTRA: bostonphil.org/bpyo Benjamin Zander’s controversial departure after more than 45 years at the New England Conservatory didn’t keep the maestro from bouncing back quickly with his next big project. The 117-member Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, with musicians ranging from 12 to 21, debuted just after Thanksgiving at Symphony Hall, drawing rave reviews. Globe correspondent Jeffrey Gantz called the performance “spectacular in every way.”
BOSTON TEA PARTY SHIPS & MUSEUM: 306 Congress Street Bridge, Boston, 855-832-1773, bostonteapartyship.com Twelve years after a fire destroyed the original museum, it finally reopened in June at a floating site on the Congress Street Bridge, spitting distance from the site of the actual Boston Tea Party. The fleet of restored ships was expanded to three—although the third won’t arrive until late 2013— and a tearoom was added. Actors dressed in period costume and high-tech interactive exhibits fill in the gaps on the events of December 16, 1773—in fact, a major reenactment is scheduled for today. Perhaps best of all, guests at the museum can stick feathers in their hair and toss replica tea crates into the water. Huzzah!
“LE DINER EN BLANC”: boston.dinerenblanc.info It’s a flash mob with a French twist. In August, nearly 800 picnickers clad all in white gathered in Harborpark at Moakley Courthouse for Boston’s first-ever “Le Diner en Blanc.” The pop-up event, where diners bring white chairs, a 30-inch table, decorations, and baskets to a surprise location for dinner, originated in Paris more than 20 years ago and has been spreading around the world. Organizers say Le Diner en Blanc will return to Boston next summer in another secret location.
ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM’S NEW WING: 280 The Fenway, Boston, 617-566-1401, gardnermuseum.org The outward character of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum changed massively this year with the addition of a wing designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. Taking pressure off Mrs. Gardner’s original, eccentric palazzo, the building has absorbed the cafe, shop, and concert hall, houses artists’ studios and a conservation lab, and has space for special exhibitions. The new wing — sleek and transparent, yet also cozy and lived-in — is connected to the original building by a covered glass walkway. Pass through it and the old magic of the museum remains.
FRANKLIN PARK ZOO ARRIVALS: 1 Franklin Park Road, Boston, 617-541-5466, zoonewengland.org Back in October, eagle-eyed Franklin Park Zoo staff members noticed that Skippy the kangaroo had a joey peering out of her pouch. The baby won’t fully emerge until it’s 8 or 9 months old — sometime in early January — and that’s when the zoo will identify its gender and name it. Visitors can usually see Skippy (and, with any luck, baby) when the weather is right, usually above 40 degrees and clear. Also check out the zoo’s 10,000-square-foot revamped playground, full of animal-inspired slides, climbers, and swings. It was designed with input from parents and folks who work with children with special needs.