‘The Nutcracker’ redefines holiday magic in Chicago
Candance Jordan, Chicago Star
December 3, 2023
It’s been seven years since The Joffrey Ballet debuted The Nutcracker by two-time Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. Yet, every time we see it, it feels like the first time. Its thrill never lessens, and the production seems to get better year after year with tweaked graphics, exquisite costuming, nonpareil dancers, and scenery that literally makes you weep.
Set during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, the production is an homage to our city and the people who made/make it great. The story was changed from the original production of a well-to-do family to a family of immigrants, workers who helped bring the fair to life. It’s from their point of view that we get a glimpse of life inside the fair in the 19th century and the true meaning of Christmas - to be grateful for family, friends and the smaller things in life, not necessarily putting loads of expensive presents under the tree.
The Nutcracker opens as young Marie (played with perfection by Anabelle de la Nuez on opening day, Sat., Dec. 2) and her mother (Amanda Assucena), a sculptress creating the Fair’s iconic Statue of the Republic, host a festive Christmas Eve celebration. Magic is on the horizon for young Marie and the Nutcracker Prince (José Pablo Castro Cuevas), thanks to a visit from the charming but mysterious Great Impresario (Alberto Velazquez). At the stroke of midnight on a snowy Christmas Eve, when the lines between fantasy and reality blur together, Marie sets out on an unforgettable journey through Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, a marvel of sights, sounds and enchantment.
A ballet in two acts set to Tchaikovsky’s classic score, The Nutcracker features an award-winning creative team, including Tony Award®-nominated set and costume designer Julian Crouch, Caldecott Medal Award-winning author Brian Selznick, Obie and Drama Desk award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist, Tony Award®-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz and Tony Award®-winning projection designer Ben Pearcy/59 Productions.
During the pas de deux of the Arabian dancers, you could hear a pin drop. Not only was it beautifully sensual but the dancers, Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez, were totally in sync for every single acrobatic move. Mendoza’s skills reminded me of the great Victoria Jaiani who has also performed this role. Both dancers’ extensions seem unreal especially when you see their leg running parallel to their bodies, movements that only a true star can accomplish. The crowd went wild as they departed the stage.
Every dancer has not only brilliant dancing skills, but also amazing acting chops. Fernando Duarte, who appeared as Mother Nutcracker stole the show (for me) with his campy antics atop the Nutcracker pavilion. He didn't even dance to draw my attention. It was hard to take your eyes off him even as the darling young nutcrackers opened and closed their “shells” onstage below.
We’ve been privileged to see several of Wheeldon’s Nutcrackers. We were also big fans of the original Joffrey production that closed on Dec. 27, 2015, so I was sure I wouldn’t enjoy the “new” Nut, but I was so wrong. Since it’s set during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, I consider this production to be Chicago’s very own. I spoke to several attendees afterwards and they said they couldn’t keep the tears from flowing. It was pure magic with every set change bringing oohs and ahhs from the crowd.
Bravo Joffey! In every pirouette, every plié, The Joffrey Ballet pays homage to Chicago's rich artistic tapestry. The clever infusion of local flavor doesn't just make the Nutcracker relatable; it transforms the classic into a celebration of the city's spirit. The Joffrey ingeniously marries tradition with the unique charm of Chicago, giving us a Nutcracker that's clever, enchanting and all our very own!
The Nutcracker runs now through Dec. 27 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Upper Wacker Drive.