Catey Sullivan has been writing about Chicago theater for more than 25 years. She is a contributing writer at Crain's Chicago, Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She's been published in Playbill, Pioneer Press, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other outlets. She has an MFA from the University of Illinois.
Pictured: Victoria Jaiani, and Miguel Blanco. Photo by Cheryl Mann.
By Catey Sullivan
Since its inception by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816 and through countless ballet versions that followed, “The Nutcracker” has centered on the adventures of a fabulously wealthy little girl and her magical Christmas Eve journey into a fantastical kingdom of sweets.
Backed by Piotr Tchaikovsky’s glorious score, the revels of little Marie (Clara in some versions) begin with an opulent Victorian-era party that is to Christmas parties as Vogue fashion editorials are to the average person‘s closet: Everyone is rich, every gift is perfect, every outfit is elaborately dazzling and the Victoriana décor is positively swoon-worthy.
For years, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago followed suit in a production where impeccably dressed children frolicked amid ornate furnishings and towering stacks of perfectly wrapped presents. When the party gave way to Marie’s dazzling dream world, the land of pirouetting snow queens and plié-ing bonbons was actually no more magical and fantastical than the opulence of the home where Marie and her kin made merry.
Last year, the Joffrey Ballet unveiled Christopher Wheeldon’s startling new version of “The Nutcracker.” Marie’s manse was gone, replaced by a shack where children sleep on the floor, huddled by the stove for warmth. In lieu of fabulously gowns all bustled and beribboned, the guests wear the drab, flounce-free garb of impoverished immigrants. When the rats show up during the famous vermin vs. toy soldier battle, the critters are a rather unnerving reminder of the grinding poverty that defined their era of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”
Set in December, 1892, Wheeldon’s “Nutcracker” takes place about 15 years before Sinclair’s harrowing novel of the poorest of Chicago’s poor. Wheeldon evokes the novel nonetheless, by making class – and the contrast between Marie’s immigrant mother and Chicago’s well-heeled swells – part of the story. But while the lavishness is gone from Marie’s Christmas Eve party, the magic and the joy remains.
With Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece in the capable hands of conductor Scott Speck and the Chicago Philharmonic, this “Nutcracker” sounds as good as it looks. Vividly Chicago-centric and teaming with emotion, the production is a merger of bravura technique and intensely emotion storytelling.
Wheeldon’s richly detailed inclusion of Chicago in that storytelling is apparent from the start, as a crew of boisterous ragamuffin children engages in petty vandalism on the under-construction site of the World’s Fair. It’s five months before the May opening of the massive, gleaming spectacle. The splendor-to-come in with the spring is only hinted at in wintry December but the excitement is palpable nonetheless. You can feel it in the energy of the scampering children.
From the outskirts of the construction site, Wheeldon moves the story to Marie’s ramshackle home, where her mother is putting the finishing touches on a graceful golden goddess sculpture that will become the emblem of the fair. The party at Marie’s burgeoning with gusto – Never mind that the Christmas tree is a forlorn, scraggly shrub and the house itself little more than a stack of rough-hewn planks where vermin as well as children race over the floorboards.
By spotlighting the struggles of the working poor, Wheeldon gives ‘’The Nutcracker” a poignancy that is usually missing. There’s abundant joy in Marie’s humble home, and that joy strikes a chord that has nothing to do with the materialism that invariably accompanies Christmas. By contrast, the kingdom of sweets of Marie’s dreams seems all the more lavishly spectacular, from the gliding swan gondola that transports Marie to the gigantic dancing walnuts that (rather hilariously) quake in terror at the sight of a phalanx of human-sized nutcrackers.
Near the heart of the story is Marie’s mother (Victoria Jaiani), who transforms in the second act into the sculpture she’s created in the first. Jaiani’s ethereal grace belies the iron-muscled strength the role requires; she makes every seemingly-gravity-defying step look effortless.
The same can be said of the dancers who perform an around-the-world themed dance revue for Marie in the kingdom of sweets. Wheeldon ties the performances to the cultures showcased in the Fair’s multi-cultural pavilion. The Arabian duet (Fabrice Camels and Christine Rocas) is a sinewy, sensual highlight, with Rocas contorting her body into shapes that surely break the laws of musculature and physics.
The whirling dervishes of the Russian dance have been replaced by a rope-spinning Buffalo Bill (Dylan Gutierrez) and a leggy trio of saucy saloon gals (Lucia Connolly, Jacqueline Moscicke and Joanna Wozniak). Their high-stepping boisterousness is punctuated by whip cracks. As the heroic Nutcracker Prince, Alonso Tepetzi achieves muscular heights. He’s equal parts grace and brawn.
Julian Crouch’s set and costume design immerse the dancers in a fabulous visual field. The set is laden with Chicago references; both Marie’s home and the construction site of the fair were inspired by historical photographs. Puppet designer Basil Twist creates a first act shadow play that’ll leave you wonderstruck by the city’s skyline. His rat design is also quite marvelous. The critters are decidedly not cute, but they’ve got just enough whimsy in them so that they don’t make your flesh crawl either.
Together, 59 Productions’ projections and Natasha Katz’s lighting create an icily luminous snow kingdom. When the waltz of the flowers takes over, the landscape is all brightly colored petals and sunshine. At one point, the on-stage world mimics the Auditorium Theatre itself, the names of composers gleaming around a stage framed by golden domes.
The wonder of the Joffrey’s “Nutcracker” is twofold. It provides transport to the kind of fairyland that usually lives only within the imaginations of children. It is also grounded in the difficult reality of facing the holidays on a budget as limited as a child’s imagination is vast. The Joffrey captures both worlds and makes them incandescent.
THE NUTCRACKER runs through December 30th. For more information visit joffrey.org.