On November 30, 2019, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet opened its annual Nutcracker season with a matinee performance at the Auditorium Theatre, 60 E. Ida B. Wells Drive, Chicago. An adaptation of the original tale by E.T.A. Hoffman and Alexandre Dumas, it’s a holiday masterpiece set in Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. As young Marie and her mother, a sculptress crafting the towering Statue of The Republic, prepare for their annual holiday celebration, the Great Impresario of The Fair sets off a dream of adventure, romance, magic and mystery.
This version of The Nutcracker, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, is brought to life through the incredible inventiveness of a myriad of production experts. Thanks to lighting designer Natasha Katz; projection designers 59 Productions; masks, set and costume designer Julian Crouch; puppetry designed by Basil Twist; with puppetry and effects built by Tandem Otter Productions, it is an extravaganza of lights, costumes, puppets, projections, curtains and props, an absorbing spectacle, and a well considered departure from tradition in a number of ways.
Author Brian Selznick has reset the scene from the mansion of a city governor in 1816 Germany to the shack of a poor immigrant Colombian Exposition fair-worker in 1893 Chicago. Yet, the essentials of the story are still the same: a young girl with a mischievous brother, a dream of marvels, the various dances of diverse cultures, here convincingly connected to the pavilions of the actual fair.
Most importantly, though, it is the young girl’s dream, peopled with wonderful characters, that has transported generations of balletomanes, young and old, all over the world. Likewise, it has served to provide a role for virtually every neophyte in every corps de ballet since Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov crafted the dances in 1892 to the inimitable strains of some of the most gorgeous music ever composed.
The score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a Christmas staple around the world, was beautifully performed with a stunning depth of romantic penetration by the Chicago Philharmonic under the baton of Maestro Scott Speck, a conductor and an orchestra- one of the finest performing concert dance in the world today- who can well be called expert in Tchaikovsky’s music. Speck, music director of the Joffrey and artistic director of the Philharmonic, refers to Tchaikovsky as “a fountain of melody”.
What has always amazed listeners to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece is the variety of astonishing sounds the composer builds into the work, and here, Speck elicits from the Philharmonic. The toys, sweets and fantasy characters around the globe surge into life through the virtuosity of an entire orchestra yet with the crystalline, transparent sounds of a much simpler ensemble. Throughout the perfromance, unusual, seductive percussive sparks, the thrill of military tension, and langorously sensual motifs performed with a modern spin filled the Auditorium from the tip of the proscenium arch to the furthest back row.
In the execution of the clever and intricate dances, there was, of course, much to delight the eyes. The afternoon this reviewer attended, the role of “Marie” was portrayed with a nimble and delightful grace by Amanda Assucena, fresh from her triumph as “Jane Eyre.” Stunning and elegant Victoria Jaiani portrayed a loving and triumphant “Mother”, while Miguel Angel Blanco inhabited the role of “Great Impresario” with flair and dignity. Fabrice Calmels was, as ever, a vision of joy and grace as the “Rat Catcher”, the “Rat King”, and in his fabulous duet with Christine Rocas as “Arabian Dancers”. Dylan Gutierrez, reprising his role as “Buffalo Bill”, brought down the house with his panache and rope tricks. Of course, the children dancers and the puppet rats were charming and delightful.
For information and tickets to all the great performances of Joffrey Ballet, go to www.joffrey.org, of the Chicago Philharmonic, go to www.chicagophilharmonic.org, at the Auditorium Theatre, go to www.auditoriumtheatre.org
The Nutcracker will be performed through December 29, 2019.
All photos by Cheryl Mann unless otherwise noted.