Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” is a work of dreamlike wonder, an ultra-Romantic vision of life made art. In its current version of the work, the Joffrey Ballet performs perhaps an even greater miracle, which is to turn this holiday chestnut into something not just fresh and new, but also relevant and provocative. Exquisite artistry is wedded to brilliant, fleshed-out concept, and the result is an evening of polished and occasionally jaw-dropping perfection that will amaze and delight even the most jaded of “Nutcracker” veterans.
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon—who together with author and illustrator Brian Selznick created this strikingly original take on the ballet in 2016 for the Joffrey’s then-home at the Auditorium Theatre—has successfully localized the familiar story, shifting the setting from Old World drawing room to the cottage of a worker involved in constructing the great 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The story’s protagonist Marie (referred to as Clara in other versions and danced here by the elfin Yumi Kanazawa) is the daughter of a sculptress designing the gigantic “Columbia” statue that will dominate and symbolize the fair. Marie and her younger brother Franz (Oliver Reeve Libke) encounter the commanding figure of the Great Impresario (a perfectly cast Dylan Gutierrez), a caped sorcerer loosely based on architect Daniel Burnham, who conjures the fair’s awesome White City out of the swampy Lake Michigan shoreline. He is this production’s Uncle Drosselmeyer, presiding over the workmen’s Christmas party, where the immigrant tradesmen celebrate with their native folk dances, and giving Marie her thrilling gift: A wooden nutcracker that is quickly broken by the envious Franz.
Exhausted and overstimulated, Marie falls asleep after the party and in her dreams witnesses a war between brave nutcracker soldiers and creepy warlike mice. She’s then carried away via gondola (one of many impressive effects) to a land of enchantment. It is the almost-completed White City, with its towering Ferris wheel and myriad pleasure domes and pavilions, each embodying a faraway culture and locale. There Marie, together with her dashing nutcracker prince, watches the fair exhibits come to life in a gorgeous parade of music and movement, featuring Marie’s own mother as Queen of the Fair.
The second act abandons plot to showcase classical dance. All of the famous numbers are splendidly done: the Sugar Plum Fairy (danced with grace and gusto by Jeraldine Mendoza), the Waltz of the Flowers, the Chinese and Russian dances (the latter performed by Edson Barbosa as an exuberant Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West Show really did pitch its tent across the street from the Fair). Real-life couple Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili dance the acrobatic, sensuous Arabian dance. It’s a showstopper in an evening packed with riveting group and solo efforts, marked by superb pointe work and spectacular leaps by the seemingly weightless Hyuma Kiyosawa as Marie’s Prince Charming.
The ballet is two-and-a-quarter hours long, including an intermission, which may seem a bit much for the younger set, and perhaps for older viewers, too. But the sheer wonderment of it all—the endless array of fabulous costumes, hypnotic dances and earworm melodies—makes the time fly by. Not the least of the show’s attractions are the many scrims, backdrops and projections, under the overall direction of designer Julian Crouch. A fine effect is achieved by the layering of translucent screens, allowing for the instant transformation of cramped indoor scenes into the broad panoramas of the fairytale White City. The Lyric Opera House’s deep stage and cavernous fly loft are put to good use, enabling a remarkable range of spatial and decorative effects. This “Nutcracker” is not just a ballet; it’s a kaleidoscope of moods and milieus, tied together by Tchaikovsky’s varied and inventive score, played with brio by the house orchestra under music director Scott Speck.
Unlike the original production, which is set in the luxurious home of a wealthy family, Wheeldon’s version also is a study in oppositions and juxtapositions, counterposing earthy workers with fanciful fairies, gritty cityscapes with the White City, simple folk tunes with symphonic orchestrations. We see young Marie experience the mixed excitement and dread of newly awakening feelings, captured by her divided reaction to men as gallant heroes and rat-like predators, engaged in violent combat.
Chicago, too, comes across as a place of extreme contrasts, with its modest and crowded immigrant neighborhoods situated near the gleaming showcase that was the World’s Fair, both tightly connected economically but physically walled off from each other. The Joffrey has done well to set this work during the Columbian Exposition, when Chicago, the worldliest of cities, briefly became a place of magical, breathtaking beauty. This production recaptures that golden moment from long ago. See this spellbinding production if you can.
At the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker, through December 26. $35-$191, joffrey.org.