Move over Clara, a single mother sculptress is now the center of “The Nutcracker”—and that’s just one of the improvements made in The Joffrey Ballet’s $4 million world premiere production choreographed by Tony winner Christopher Wheeldon.
As expected, the two-act ballet takes place on the night before Christmas, but the traditionally European-set story has been transported to Chicago circa 1892 (the same year the first “Nutcracker” premiered in Russia), where working class immigrants prepare for the World’s Columbian Exposition. As Artful Dodger-like youths, musicians and life-affirming dancers make the most of what they have, The Great Impresario of the Fair (Miguel Angel Blanco) joins the “stone soup” soiree. He takes a fancy to the widowed sculptress (Victoria Jaiani) and gives her daughter Marie (Amanda Assucena) a nutcracker.
This revision created by author Brian Selznick helps make the mysterious gift-giver seem less creepy than the original’s Uncle Drosselmeyer. Yet, as is the case with every staging of “The Nutcracker,” it’s troublesome when the grown man physically appears in the little girl’s room following the evening festivities. As such, it would make more sense to clearly illustrate his arrival is imaginary via the visual projections already used to great effect in the production by Tony winner Ben Pearcy.
Additional assets include lighting by Tony winner Natasha Katz, set and costume design by Julian Crouch, and puppetry so true to life, it makes the rat-infested first act believable. This harsh reality is juxtaposed nicely with the fanciful second act, which features the upcoming World’s Fair, where waltzing visitors, ice cavaliers, and whimsical dancing nuts take turns at center stage. In lieu of a Sugar Plum Fairy, the sculptress comes to life as the glorious statue she created for the expo, while familiar notes from Tchaikovsky’s beloved score are played to perfection by The Chicago Philharmonic, led by Music Director Scott Speck.
The World’s Fair setting also provides a logical context for foreign pavilions of dancers from China, Spain and Venice, as well as a scene-stealing pair from Arabia (Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels), all of whom are regulars to the story. Missing are the Russian dancers, who have been replaced by Buffalo Bill (Dylan Gutierrez) and his Wild West Show. This smart addition widens the ballet’s scope as it shows the Joffrey’s new version isn’t just about Chicago’s past, it’s about American history.
“Having settled the frontier, America embraced its place in the world,” explains the Joffrey’s Artistic Director Ashley Wheater. “This was a time of optimism and dynamic growth…Christopher Wheeldon and his creative team have captured this spirit in our new ‘Nutcracker.’ Perhaps more importantly, they have found fresh meaning at the heart of the ‘Nutcracker’ story. Rather than arriving at the ‘land of sweets,’ Marie’s fantastic journey brings her to a loving home in a new land.”
This highly recommended adaptation of “The Nutcracker” performs through Dec. 30 at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. For tickets ($35-$170), visit Joffrey.org.
(Photo captions & credits: Top: Victoria-Jaiani and Miguel Angel Blanco perform in “The Nutcracker,” by Cheryl Mann, courtesy of The Joffrey Ballet; Top right: Fair visitors costume rendering, courtesy of The Joffrey Ballet.)