Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon. At: Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets: 312-386-8905; Joffrey.org; $35-150. Runs through: Dec. 30
A decade in the making, the Auditorium Theatre was teeming with excitement as patrons filed in on Dec. 10 for the world-premiere performance of Christopher Wheeldon's Nutcracker, with the Tony Award-winning ballet star serving as choreographer.
A smoky haze circles an image of the highly anticipated ballet's title, projected onto the main curtain and in front of which emerged Joffrey's leadership: artistic director Ashley Wheater and executive director Greg Cameron. As with anything this big, it was a struggle to get to this place. The $4 million price tag, coordinating collaborators from around the world, and dealing with inevitable changes and challenges … Joffrey quite literally made the impossible possible.
Wheeldon's Nutcracker is re-imagination of the classic ballet that has become a U.S. holiday tradition, of which the most noticeable change is the main character's socioeconomic status. Marie ( known as Clara in many versions ) is no longer a rich girl attending a party in her rich parents' stuffy German living room; instead, Wheeldon has moved the setting to the winter before the 1893 Great Columbian Exposition, Chicago's World's Fair.
Marie ( danced by the blithe Amanda Assucena ) and brother Franz ( up-and-comer Dylan Sengpiel ) live with their single mother, a sculptress portrayed by Victoria Jaiani, in a shanty house near the fairgrounds. The party scene is ever as it was, although the guests are simply dressed and the joy and cheer of the Christmas season is created by pulling bits and scraps togethermaking due and making magic with the help of "The Great Impresario of the Fair," a Daniel Burnam-type character danced by Miguel Angel Blanco and the jovial replacement for other Nutcrackers' creepy Uncle Drosselmeyer. With his plucky apprentice Peter ( Alberto Velazquez ), an adorable children's cast and a clever new musical arrangement featuring a trio of musicians playing onstage for the group dances, the modesty of this party scene does not take away from its complexity and charm.
Throughout the creative process, Wheeldon gave reassurance that certain elements omnipresent in every Nutcracker would remain, and he kept his word that the tree would grow ( it did ), there would be mice and snowflakes ( there were ), and the Nutcracker doll would transform into a handsome prince ( quite handsome ). Changing the setting of the ballet created a through-line to this story that usually isn't there, providing much-needed context.
It makes sense that a Rat Catcher ( Rory Hohenstein ) looming around the fairground would become the Rat King in Marie's dream. It makes sense that Marie's journey to a magically finished summer fairgrounds is via boat in a frigid Lake Michigan with ice and snow all around and a frosty Chicago skyline behind. It makes sense that the Kingdom of the Sweets is now the fair's national pavilions with archetypal variations from around the world. It even makes sense that Buffalo Bill Cody ( hilariously portrayed by a boot-scootin' Dylan Gutierrez ) takes up the former Russian nuggat music with his three harlots and some impressive lassoing.
For the most part, the changes are refreshing and welcome, but for one: At the top of act two, we see Marie's mother transformed into the Queen of the Fair, representing the Statue of the Republic, a 65-foot gilded bronze beauty that welcomed visitors to the fair. The character replaces the Sugar Plum Fairy ( and that's all fine ), but her variation is plucked from the grand pas de deux and placed quite unnaturally into the second act's opening. The grand pas' adagio does eventually happen, with the Mother/Queen of the Fair figure dancing an exquisite duet with the Impressario. It's an honestly glorious bit of choreographyperhaps the best in the balletbut where it goes from there alters the plotline of the ballet. Nutcracker is supposed to be a coming of age story for Marie, but as the curtain falls, the scene implies that mom got her man, and they all lived happily ever after, and that doesn't sit right with me.
In fact, the whole second act falls a teensy bit flat, but only in comparison to the rich and magical first. There seems an over-reliance on Ben Pearcy's projections to infuse the fairground with the wonder and delight it requires, and when compared to the flawless collaboration merging light/projection/prop/scenery/puppets/costume and dancing in the magnificent transformation and battle scenes of the first act, it feels as though the team may have simply run out of time. These are really ( really ) picky things to say, and I don't mean to imply that the ballet is anything other than super-magical. After all, the World's Fair wasn't done when it opened, either, but managed to delight its audiences.
On stage for the curtain speech, Wheater spoke of how Wheeldon's Nutcracker is a testament to the founding principles of Robert Joffrey's company, which was and continues to be about transforming and expanding ballet as an art form with a spirit toward innovation. That's all true, but I would argue that Joffrey's Nutcracker ( which enjoyed its final performance last season ) was wholly conventional, perhaps because he knew it had to withstand the test of time.
Will Wheeldon's ballet hold up as well as Joffrey's did, or will the novelty wear off? Only time will tell, but one thing is very clear: This is Chicago's Nutcracker. It is as rich and beautiful and complicated and resilient as our city. As things are tweaked, refined and finished, and as the dancers begin to live in this new and quite difficult choreography and let it breathe, like a fine wine, I imagine this Nutcracker will only improve with age.