Traditionally, the rats in THE NUTCRACKER are figments of a young girl’s Christmas Eve imagination: too much excitement and too many sweets at her parents’ tree-decorating party. In Christopher Wheeldon’s version of the Tchaikovsky favorite, Marie’s dream comes from seeing actual rats scurry atop a fence along the construction site of Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition.
Wheeldon first reimagined the ballet for Joffrey in 2016, setting it in Chicago on the Christmas before the 1893 opening of Daniel Burnham’s legendary “White City” on the South Side. Wheeldon and his set and costume designer Julian Crouch, both British, have a keen sense of Chicago architecture and history. For those used to Christmas card prettiness, it may be jarring to hear the opening music as ragamuffin boys display stolen goods in front of the fence. But in this viewer’s opinion, the drab scene leads to deep and unexpected beauty within the confines of the Auditorium Theatre.
THE NUTCRACKER’s humble home
The ballet inspired by German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, choreographed by Frenchman Marius Petipa, and premiering in St. Petersburg in 1892, usually involves ornate European affluence. Nothing doing for Joffrey’s creative team. This NUTCRACKER pays homage to the hardships endured by laborers who were drawn to Chicago to build the temporary magic of the world’s fair. Mother (April Daly), a widow who makes sculptures for the fair, hosts a holiday party in the wooden shack that she shares with her daughter Marie (Anais Bueno) and son Franz (Patrick Williams). While soaring, glittering trees tend to define conventional NUTCRACKER iterations, this production’s tree can only be called scraggly.
What happens around that tree is abundant in every other way. Instead of the heroine’s godfather Herr Drosselmeyer bringing the titular nutcracker, the gift to Marie now comes from the Great Impresario of the Fair. Fabrice Calmels, whose 6’6” height equals his mastery of his long limbs, radiates benevolence in the role. Besides presents for the children, he passes out holiday bonuses to workmen in overalls and caps. Then, before leaving the party, he drapes his red scarf around the humble tree – a hint of his fondness for Mother that emerges in Act II.
Breathtaking projections for JOFFREY BALLET
After Mother settles her children on a mat in front of the stove, Maria’s imagination goes to work. The wood slat walls separate and the stage fills with a tree so vast, it almost feels as if we’re underneath it. Projections designed by 59 Productions transport the ballet from one enchanted vantage point to another, hewing closely to local foliage and evoking architectural details such as the Auditorium’s receding arches. Act II’s backdrop of the fairground, complete with Mother’s Golden Lady sculpture and luminous waterways, is breathtaking.
Much of the choreography emphasizes personal relationships more than spectacle, especially those within the family. However, Joffrey’s NUTCRACKER lacks nothing in the way of polished and satisfying dance performances. The Fair’s international pavilions align with the ballet’s set pieces for Arabian, Spanish and Chinese dancers. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show certainly didn’t factor into Tchaikovsky’s score but somehow, Buffalo Bill with a lasso and three showgirls in cowboy boots do justice to the great composer’s music. For this reviewer, it’s another reason to reconsider tradition from every angle.
Christopher Wheeldon (Choreography), Ljova (Act I Music Arrangement), Brian Selznick (Story), Nicolas Blanc, Adam Blyde, Suzanne Lopez (Staging), Julian Crouch (Set & Costume Design), Natasha Katz (Lighting), Basil Twist (Puppetry), 59 Productions (Projection Design), Jacquelin Barrett (Choreographer’s Assistant), Adam Blyde, Suzanne Lopez, Michael Smith (Children’s Ballet Masters), Frank McCullough (Assistant Scenic Designer), Jon Goldman (Assistant Lighting Designer)
Through December 29, 2019
Saturday, Nov.30 at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm;
Sunday, Dec. 1 at 2:00pm;
Friday,Dec.6 at 7:00pm;
Saturday, Dec. 7 at 2:00pm and 7:00pm;
Sunday, Dec. 8 at 2:00pm;
Thursday, Dec. 12 at7:00pm;
Friday, Dec. 13 at 7:00pm;
Saturday, Dec. 14 at 2:00pm and 7:00pm;
Sunday, Dec. 15 at 2:00pm and 7:00pm;
Wednesday, Dec.18 at 7:00pm;
Thursday, Dec. 19 at 7:00pm;
Friday, Dec. 20 at 2:00pm and7:00pm;
Saturday, Dec.21 at 2:00pm and 7:00pm;
Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019 at 2:00pm and 7:00pm;
Monday, Dec. 23 at 2:00pm and 7:00pm;
Thursday, Dec. 26 at 2:00pm;
Friday, Dec.27 at 2:00pm and 7:00pm;
Saturday, Dec. 28 at 2:00pm and 7:00pm; and
Sunday,Dec.29 at 2:00pm.
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.