Reimagined Nutcracker Magic @ Joffrey Ballet

4 Stars out of 4

Christopher Wheeldon’s completely reworked Nutcracker, premiered in 2016, interestingly goes back into history to create a masterpiece that speaks to the 21st century.  The Joffrey Ballet, since its founding on the cutting edge of culture, took an enormous risk in rewriting a holiday season staple: ballet companies and schools the world over make bank on this 19th century classic about a girl and a utensil.  It helps that the new libretto is by none other than Brian Selznik, the bestselling children’s author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.   Commissioning Basil Twist to do rat puppets and 59 Productions to do magical transformational projections including a dazzling illumination of the Auditorium Theatre houselights adds to a dream team up to the task of evolving what is a tale of privileged Europeans into into a holiday tradition that honors the American melting pot.   This Nutcracker creates a story that nods to working people with very little with which to craft the fairy tale that is Christmas. I hope there are plenty of outreach seats so that the current generations of children with meager holiday offerings get to experience this show.   

There is no Clara, and no Sugar Plum Fairy in this Nutcracker.  Tchaikovsky’s iconic score has been pared to create a 2 hour event including the intermission.  The story is set in the immigrants shack for workers in 1892, where craftsman and artists from around the world are setting up the Columbian Exhibition of 1893 on Chicago ‘s South Side.  The Joffrey itself is a bit of an immigrant art studio: only about a quarter of the current ensemble is American born.  And as we shut down our Southern Border, it is well to note that about a 5th of the company hails from countries south of our increasingly barricaded border. What artists are we imprisoning in our migrant camps? How ironic that we used to bring the world to Chicago and now we are bent on keeping the world from entering.

The Drosselmeyer character here is the Daniel Burnham inspired Fair Impresario, and Marie, the protagonist girl (going back to the original German moniker for the lead character) lives with her widowed mother and pesky brother Franz. Marie was danced exquisitely by the petite Anais Bueno.  Mother, who will become the Queen of the Fair, Columbia herself, in the dream second act and will dance to the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo music, is the magical and empathetic Jeraldine Mendoza. Dylan Gutierrez is the Impresario who merges the Drosselmeyer and Prince roles and solos.   The very young Bennet Parker carries the role of Franz the pesky brother.

The workers gather for a holiday party, the hordes of children get very practical gifts: Marie gets a Nutcracker.  She falls asleep beneath the stunted Christmas tree and dreams a marvelous dream of taking a Gondola through the completely built World’s Fair in the upcoming summer.  The Russians are even Americans now with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show replacing the Cossacks in this rendition.   A shout out to that Bill: the funny and talented Rory Hohenstein who is also the Rat King, and the Rat Catcher for the fair.  Those rat puppets are at once charming and terrifying.   Mother Ginger is now Mother Nutcracker: still an over the top drag role, but the children dressed as nuts and nutcrackers steal the show.

Purists may be disoriented by some of the rearrangements, but this production brings the Nutcracker into a relevance and social commentary that Balanchine’s dated but completely beloved restaging of an Imperial Russian Petipa masterpiece cannot.  It brings a bit of Chicago history into a spotlight. Joffrey’s Nutcracker is a gorgeous and must see production, from the costumes to the lighting, to the live music, to the choral singing from Voices In Your Head ensemble. Whether this is your first or your hundredth Nutcracker, don’t miss this show.

The Nutcracker is playing through December 30, 2018 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 Ida B Wells Drive, Chicago, IL.  For more information go to http://joffrey.org/nutcracker  or  https://www.theatreinchicago.com/the-nutcracker/8769/