Sugar plums in your stocking

December 11, 2010
REVIEW by Chicago Theater
Lawrence Bommer

Content

Scrooge requires four ghosts to save his dark soul from excess personal savings. George Bailey gets help from an angel desperate to make good and to do it too. But Clara, the heroine of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Christmas ballet, earns her fantasy when she knocks out the Mouse King and frees her adored Nutcracker from his wooden curse. That’s the perfect excuse to dance up a storm—or a blizzard. Yes, it’s that time of year when six “Nutcrackers” hit the Chicago boards, none more splendid or popular than the Joffrey Ballet’s annual confection, a gift from the late Robert Joffrey that keeps on giving.

This year’s spectacle—the 15th since its 1996 Chicago debut–was gloriously unwrapped and heartily cheered at the Auditorium Theatre on Friday night, as it definitely and annually deserves. Oliver Smith’s storybook set design is the perfect backdrop for the Victorian parlor from the 1850s, a magical battleground (against the Mice menace) and Land of Snow for the first half (choreographed by the late Gerald Arpino) and the spring-like Kingdom of Sweet for the second. (There’s enough snow by the end of the first act to satisfy a dozen Chicago blizzards, with some to spare for Minneapolis. That’s why we need the second act to sweeten the scene.)

The communal opening ball is, of course, a showcase for dancers, young and older. These depict the delighted guests at Clara’s beautiful American manse who marvel at Dr. Drosselmeyer’s cavorting automatons. Those mechanical dolls, rigidly presenting their preset terpsichorean displays, are a prelude to the real magic of the enchanted Nutcracker who, under a now-huge Christmas tree, helps Clara to free him from wooden bondage. That of course allows Drosselmeyer and the now humanly handsome Nutcracker to celebrate the victory with the Snow monarchs and their Snowflake corps de ballet, after which the Sugar Plum Fairy and her divertissements continue the fete in the hypoglycemic realm of sugary confections galore.

Anastacia Holden is the delighted Clara who serves as a lucky surrogate for all the kids in the crowd, with slim and elegant Mauro Villanueva as her dashing Nutcracker Prince. (His pas de deux with Yumelia Garcia’s ravishing Sugar Plum Fairy was perfect, precise and even passionate.) The second act’s novelty candy dances from Spain, Arabia, China, Russia and France amounted to a vaudevillian extravaganza in its own right. If the kids were any cuter, they’d explode.

The Chicago Sinfonietta bring Tchaikovsky’s evergreen and everwhite score to generous life, a musical outpouring that ranges from 19th century quadrilles and polkas to waltzes that deserve their own perpetual motion. Hearing it makes you regret his suicide all the more. What marvels would he have composed after 53! That’s a fantasy we can’t indulge.

Speaking of homage, this year’s performance is nobly dedicated to the late Richard Ellis, who danced the role of Drosselmeyer for 27 years in Ruth Page’s Tribune Charities’ production at the Arie Crown Theater.