The Nutcracker by Christopher Wheeldon: A Changed Classic

Victoria Jalani and Miguel Angel Blanco. Photo byCheryl Mann.
Victoria Jalani and Miguel Angel Blanco. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Christopher Wheeldon is a visionary; there’s no doubt about that. When I learned that he’d be dreaming up a revamped version of The Nutcracker featuring the Joffrey Ballet, I couldn’t resist a chance to see what it was all about.

I’ve been going to see the Joffrey’s performance of The Nutcracker since I was a child. I’d wriggle in my seat, then become instantly captivated by the magic. The glittering backdrop, the classic costumes, the breathtaking dance of the Snow Queen. Every time, it felt like I was transported into an otherworldly place full of pure, unbridled joy. I soon began to know the set design, linked songs to dances, and appreciated the routine. Each year I knew I was seeing something I already loved.

As a change-averse person, I was a bit nervous to see the new Nutcracker. But I was also curious. The backdrop onstage was already completely different when I took my seat, and I knew we were in for something special. This Nutcracker is set during the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, when the world’s fair indulged curiosities and brought a sense of magic and a major dose of history and internationalism to our city. Immediately, I was taken by the set design. In the past, the sets were exquisite, but this new adaptation upped the ante. The show opens with a World’s Fair backdrop, which then magically is transformed into a wooden cottage housing a working-class German family, with a twilit setting just outside.

The Snowflakes with Mr. Ferris’ wheel in the background.

Act I felt Dickens-esque; whereas before we saw an opulent family indulge in their lavish holiday celebrations, it now seemed that we were with the Cratchits as they were merely thankful for the little things they did have. The similarities abounded, but were minimal, in the first act. Marie falls asleep as rats scurry about her home, and she soon is whisked away. Instead of a Christmas wonderland, she is introduced to cultures that were part of the world’s fair exhibitions, where 46 countries were represented.

The second act is where I’m a bit biased because I loved the original production so wholeheartedly. The Nutcracker brings Marie on a tour of the world, as each dance represents a different sense of place. As always, the Arabian Dance is stunning, featuring two dancers who mesmerize the audience with their languid movements. Instead of the Snow Queen donning a glittery white outfit, she is instead enveloped in gold, representing a sculpture that is a fixture within the world’s fair. While the other countries are represented well, I felt that America’s representation was a bit hokey as compared to the classic Nutcracker. Here, we had a cowboy chasing cowgirls while wielding a lasso. Out of all the changes, this was the one I did not enjoy.

Overall, Wheeldon’s reimagined Nutcracker showed that change isn’t always a bad thing. Classic spectators may have been put off by some of the amendments, however the striking, visually stunning set designs by Julian Crouch, Natasha Katz, and Ben Percy, as well as intriguing plot changes allowed the new production to shine.

The Nutcracker by the Joffrey Ballet ran from December 10-30 at the Auditorium Theatre.

Sarah Brooks
Sarah Brooks

Sarah Brooks is a native Chicagoan with a penchant for words, music, art and this magnificent city of Chicago. Raised on The Beatles and learning the violin at age 9, Sarah’s passion for music began early in life. Her musical obsessions include Wilco, Otis Redding, Neko Case and Real Estate, but they truly change daily. She can be found at a concert, trying a new restaurant, or running along the lakefront path.