NEW YORK (AP) _ If some Scrooge asks whether the country needs another production of ''The Nutcracker,'' the answer is yes, when it's as delightful as the Joffrey Ballet production that opened at the City Center on Wednesday.

It satisfies even the biggest appetite for beautiful dancing and costumes and the nicely magical.

The Christmas eve party with which the story begins is here set in America in the 1850s. Clara and Fritz, looking like early teen-agers instead of grade- schoolers, shake hands as families arrive. The children and then the adults take part in some organized dances.

The children receive gifts which will figure in Clara's dream, the post- party subject of the ballet. They include a hobbyhorse, a nutcracker shaped like a soldier, a toy mouse, a doll and doll bed.

Alexander Grant, a former member of the British Royal Ballet now with the London Festival Ballet, danced Drosselmeyer, the godfather of Clara and Fritz. Drosselmeyer is prominent in this production and Grant is wonderful, whirling about and announcing each of the exotic dances of Act 2, and fondly attentive to Clara.

Mary Barton as Clara expressed a winsome sweetness. Edward Stierle, as the mischievous Fritz and later in Act 1 in his solo as the Snow Prince, conveyed the strongest personality through his dancing.

Clara arrived in Act 2 on a full-size hobby horse. Dawn Caccamo and Glenn Edgerton were the enchanting Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince, dancing superbly but never coldly distant. Clara sat on a throne at one side, often with Drosselmery beside her. And often she joined the lead couple in dancing.

Jodie Gates was a spirited Spanish dancer. Julie Janus and Tom Mossbrucker had a long, sinuous duet as Arabians, followed by a short Chinese duet by Cynthia Giannini and Stierle. Four lively Russians, Linda Bechtold, Carl Corry, Raymond Perrin and Joseph Schnell followed, then three shepherdesses, Tina Le Blanc, Cameron Basden and Meg Gurin.

Robert Joffrey choreographed, except for Gerald Arpino's snowflakes and ''Waltz of the Flowers,'' in which male partners carrying the ballerinas added to the sensation of fluffy camillias floating by.

Joffrey patterned his ''Nutcracker'' on the 1940 production of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which was based on the 1892 original, and which Joffrey saw as a child - and danced in - in Seattle.

Oliver Smith designed the front curtain from a 19th century illustration for toys that Joffrey owns. The lavish costumes were designed by John David Ridge. The masked mice, huge-skirted woman and rocking horse were designed by Kermit Love. George Verdak and Scott Bernard did the staging.

The premiere was in Iowa City, Iowa, on Dec. 10. The ballet also has played in Washington D.C. before coming to New York.