Review: A Harlem Reverie in Sugar Hill: the Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker
Harlem. The name evokes a sense of place, time, and for some, the halcyon days of the Harlem Renaissance. Sugar Hill is a section of Harlem where the strivers lived, aka the Black upper class of New York. Sugar Hill is the springboard for a ballet composed by revered jazz collaborators Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The Sugar Hill concept and the libretto are by Jessica Swan, who is known for writing about dreams and psychology. Swan taps into the storyline of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker with dreams and a heroine's journey to free herself from the restrictions of upper-class expectations. Joshua Bergasse is the director and also the supervising choreographer.
The prologue to Sugar Hill finds a trumpeter (Jinhao Zhang) in his element to "Echoes of Harlem." Zhang is excellent as the musician who is set upon by hooligans who knock his teeth out leaving him unable to play the trumpet. He is transformed into a nutcracker and doomed to having no musical voice. Zhang is a magnificent dancer blending perfect ballet form with jazz moves. His form and emotion are aligned beautifully throughout the performance.
The opening act is set at the Stall home, where elegant people dance in perfect waltz formation to Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Overture." In their midst is Lena (Alicia Mae Holloway), who is bored and slumped over. Mama Stall (Brenda Braxton) insists that Lena change her posture to suggest superiority and elegance like her sister Louise (Megan Prout). Holloway is great as the reticent teenager who finds the striver's upper-class vibe atmosphere stuffy and dull.
Uncle Dross (Ken Ard) arrives with Sweet Pea (Shavey Brown) and the victrola suddenly starts playing "Peanut Brittle Brigade," which to the horror of Mama Stall is jazz music. The Black upper class of the early 20th century would also strive to emulate the white upper class in what was considered to be good taste with the veneer of exclusivity. Jazz was considered a lower-class music that was a synonym for sexual intercourse and associated with base desires, drinking, and louche behavior. Mama Stall demands that it stop and they return to the classical music. Uncle Dross presents Lena with a nutcracker as a gift and also sparks a rhythm in her that makes her sneak out and discover Harlem's glorious nightlife and some of its dangers.
Dross and Sweet Pea are characters based on Ellington and Strayhorn. Ellington was known for his ultra-suave appearance and meticulous grooming. Dross later appears in a white tuxedo with a voluminous satin cape that is very Ellington. Strayhorn's nickname was Sweet Pea and as with his characterization in Sugar Hill, he was a serious composer who set out to be a classical musician but found that was considered to be the milieu for those of European descent. Strayhorn was also openly gay, which is alluded to in a solo vocal performance of "Stange Feeling" by Brown. It was a surprise to hear a vocal performance amid the dance performance but it was a perfect interlude and a character revelation.
The storyline is similar to a traditional Nutcracker but portrayed with jazz music. Lena is put into a dream state by Uncle Dross where she, Sweet Pea, and the Nutcracker take a surreal ride on "The A Train" with a beautiful angel (Jennifer Jade Ledesna) singing what may be Ellington and Strayhorn's signature song. Ledesna has what I consider to be a perfect jazz orchestra voice. Hers is the only other vocal interlude and her stage presence and the song itself make it a highlight.
The dream state lands them in a conflict with the Mouse King and his gang. The rodents dance to a version of "Tonk," which is a brilliant Ellington/Strayhorn piano duet that sounds like one piano. It is one of the more fun dances to watch with athleticism and tail-swinging sass. Lena stops the invasion by sounding the Nutcracker's trumpet and driving the mice away. A beautiful cat named Sugar Rum Cherry (Larissa Gerszke) appears with a quartet of mischievous cats and is delighted to hear how they drove the mice away. Gerske and her cat butlers (Joshua Dawson, JD Hart, Chase Maxwell, and Dario Natarelli) are perfectly feline. Gerszke is beautifully poised, elegant, and funny with her butlers as they lounge about grooming, pouncing, and introducing various acts as entertainment.
The exotic dances in Sugar Hill are a bit different than usually presented in The Nutcracker. Ethnicities are not presented in the same way, and I found some of the choreography in this section to be lacking and rather listless. The beautiful costumes by David Kaley provided some lift for the performances but this is not a fashion show. Most of the dancers in this show have the energy and verve that are fit for the Ellington and Strayhorn blend of jazz with homage to some of the Tchaikovsky passages. Some of the moves were repetitive. The Grand Jeté in a circle usually gets applause for athleticism and energy but I did not feel that aptitude or the dancing skill required in some of the second act. Fortunately, the music and other standout dances kept the high-stepping spirit of Sugar Hill.
The centerpiece of Sugar Hill is the music of Ellington and Strayhorn. Conductor Harold O'Neal is also the pianist leading a tight and smooth big band of brass, reeds, guitar, and percussion. Ellington and Strayhorn had a 40-year partnership that produced some classics in the American jazz canon. This show is a wonderful tribute to a time in American history that contributed to the cultural identity of the nation and reflected the genius of two musicians. Ellington and Strayhorn broke boundaries and raised the profile of Black music as well as LGBTQ artists. Overall, it is a beautiful performance with a couple of lulls that could be put into a higher gear. I greatly enjoyed Sugar Hill: An Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker and recommend it as a fine holiday outing for the whole family in one of Chicago's grandest theaters.
Sugar Hill: An Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker runs through December 30 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive. For tickets and more information, please visit https://auditoriumtheatre.org/events-details/sugar-hill/
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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