Reviewed by Tom Lawler
Along with A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker remains a pillar of theatrical entertainment every holiday season. While Dickens’ work imparts a moral lesson on the importance of family, love and generosity over material wealth, Nutcracker transports us to a Yuletide fantasia of battling mice and toy soldiers, a dancing sugar plum fairy and, of course, a live nutcracker. Comparatively, the latter seems more engineered for family entertainment, and the Joffrey’s Nutcracker, now in its 25th year, will dazzle the young and old alike with some of the finest sets, costumes, choreography and performances you’re likely to ever see in a production of this ballet.
To the Joffrey’s credit though, this probably isn’t the Nutcracker you remember: it takes some departures both toward the sublime (you will not forget the sights and yes, sounds of falling snowflakes in the Enchanted Forest) and dark (are we really OK with the sinister-looking Dr. Drosselmeyer whisking off young Clara on these nocturnal adventures?). Throughout this production, the choreography of the ballet is intricate and the dancing uniformly passionate and “en pointe” – the holiday party scene in Act I alone, featuring a cast of at least 30 adult and children dancers, is a marvel.
As explained in the press materials, when Robert Joffrey (with contributions from Gerald Arpino) choreographed Nutcracker for the original production in 1987, he decided to switch out the traditional German milieu for one set in a 19th century American mansion (brilliant realized by the sumptuous set design of Oliver Smith). We gain a setting both more familiar to us and a bit more ominous – especially when the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeyer (clad in black and wearing an eye-patch, no less) enters the scene and begins bestowing gifts for the children and controlling the party guests with his clap and a cloud of magic dust.
As the clock strikes midnight and young Clara’s adventures begin, the set transforms and we witness an army of mice take on the toy soldiers led by a life-sized Nutcracker. Although we’ve been raised to root for the toy solders in this annual holiday skirmish, doesn’t it seem a bit barbaric to be rooting for the side dressed like a Napoleonic army literally pointing cannons at the ragtag rodents armed with nothing more than swords?
As previously mentioned, you will not forget your visit to the Land of the Snow – in fact, this was the peak of the production for this critic. The choreography exploits the immense scale and depth of the set with much to see in both the foreground and background, and we are treated to a duet in perhaps the most exquisite winter setting that can be imagined. The sights and sounds of falling snow seem to continue on and on – and you wish it would never end.
These splendors continued into the intermission, as my companion and I forayed into the ornate lobby of the Auditorium Theater and found our glasses of wine waiting on the table for our embrace – as promised! (A special note of thanks goes out to the Auditorium’s persuasive concession attendant who sold us on their ingenious preordering service.)
After this restorative interlude, our story continues as Clara and Dresselmeyer head into the Land of the Sweets where we meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Tchaikovsky score proceeds into some of its most familiar sections. We’re also treated to the spectacle of a giant Mother Ginger puppet designed by Sesame Street’s Kermit Love (also known as the creator of the Big Bird and Snuffleupagus puppets) and powered by a small army of young dancers.
To be sure, the ballet in Act II remains across-the-board excellent – particularly throughout the “Celebration of Dances” in which we’re given an Epcot-like tour of countries including India, Russia and China. By the time we arrive at the final set of dances between the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy, however, we venture perhaps a Pas De Deux too far.
But like sugar plums and sweets, can there truly be too much of a good thing when it’s the holidays and you’re spending it watching a Nutcracker as superb as the Joffrey’s in a venue as gorgeous as Louis Sullivan’s landmark Auditorium Theater? Hardly, and luckily you won’t need Dresselmeyer’s magic to conjure these splendid sights and sounds.
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.
At the Auditorium Theater, 50 E. Congress Expressway
Choreographed by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino
Live music performed by The Chicago Philharmonic, with accompaniment by a rotating series of children’s choirs who also sing Christmas carols in the theater lobby before each performance and during intermission.
Wed-Fridays at 7pm (with several additional 2pm weekday matinees on the last two weeks of December)
Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm
Thru December 27