Review: The Nutcracker, Joffrey Ballet’s Gorgeous Must-See Holiday Tradition

Dylan Gutierrez and Yumi Kanazawa. ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2021.

The Nutcracker is as much a part of me as chocolate, and I don’t think I have made it through a holiday season since I was 4 without seeing a version. I have done Balanchine’s Imperial Russian version with the NYC Ballet, tap versions, dramatic versions with no dance or music, an alien version, Nutcracker on Horses, Nutcracker on Ice—I once sat backstage with Maria Tallchief for the version at the Harris, and in South Bend helped Glen Edgerton into his Prince Costume in another. I have had Gerald Arpino himself give me and my tiny daughter a backstage tour at the Auditorium, and for the last decade I have refereed at a Dance-It-Yourself version for very small children. And so when I say the Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker is a must see for any Chicagoan for a number of reasons, know that I say this with a lot of background.

The first reason to go is that Brian Selznick’s reworking of the story basically pitches out the entire European upper-class narrative. In this story there are poor immigrants at a potluck trying to stay warm around the cook stove as they build the White City for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. It’s Christmas Eve 1892 and the workers are having a party. The onstage Banda boils the  party music down to something homey. (The bulk of the score is played by a live orchestra—a delicious treat to once again hear live music.)

There are RATS all about these homes—fabulous puppets by the incomparable Basil Twist, whose work will be seen again here in January at the Chicago International Puppet Theatre Festival.  Drosselmayer in this version is The Gr.eat Impresario—a Daniel Burnham character recast as benefactor to the single mother sculptress and her children, and the community of workers building the fair. The Sugar Plum Fairy is now the Queen of the Fair danced by the exquisite Jeraldin Mendoza (who is also Marie’s poor mum). She is a live rendition of the Columbia Statue, who welcomes all to a vision of what the fair will be with its many international pavilions. The Marzipan Shepherdesses are now Venetians, and the Russian music is now performed by the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Mother Ginger and the Bon Bons become Mother Nutcracker and her nuts in quirky costumes.

The adaptive re-use of Tchaikovsky’s beloved score makes the entire show more expansive and inclusive, and the narrative makes more sense.

Jeraldin Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez. ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2021.

But even if you don’t come to The Nutcracker for the story, Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography is a joy. From the liquid Moorish duet with fan favorite Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili (doing double duty since he is also the rat catcher) to the exuberant Chinese dragon dance with Fernando Duarte, there is more than enough beautiful ballet for all. And there is wonder and joy: when the tree grows from a motley branch to take up the entire stage and the snow begins to fall, all around me children were oohing and ahhing. There was a bit too much snow opening night, causing one of the snowflake dancers to take a tumble. But one of the Ice Cavaliers in their signature Jack Frost suits quickly helped out restoring the magic. Costumes (by Julian Crouch who also did the sets and masks) in this show are a visual delight.

One small note: this version was originally produced as a site-specific work for the amazing Auditorium Theatre, with its twinkling arches. If you never saw it there, not to worry—this show has all the trimmings. For those of us that experienced the archways light up, we will miss the gigantic sense of space that the arched proscenium of that historic venue gave to the finale. But now that Joffrey has found a new home at the Civic Opera House following the opera company that moved similarly in 1929, we will grow accustomed to the new frame for our resident ballet company and this traditional offering.

A personal comment: As we move back into live theater, a newly precious experience, the irony is not lost on me that we are well-heeled crowds paying premium dollars to see stories of the less fortunate on a stage as a holiday tradition.  Across the Loop you also have A Christmas Carol at the Goodman for more feel-good poverty. Perhaps watching these works year after year will draw us together and bring us to a spirit of giving and awareness.

The Nutcracker runs through December 26 at the Civic Opera House,  20 N. Wacker Drive. Tickets are available at the Joffrey Tower Box office, 10 E. Randolph, St., by calling 312-386-8905 or online at www.joffrey.org  Be aware that you will need proof of vaccination to attend the show, and all patrons must wear face coverings over nose and mouth while in the theater.

Finally If you can’t get enough of the stunning projections designed by 59 Projections, which bring the 1893 World’s Fair to life, you can see them nightly until December 30 for free projected onto the Merchandise Mart with music arranged by Joffrey assistant conductor and pianist Michael Moricz.  There are two showings, at 7:30 and 8pm.

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Angela Allyn

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