The Joffrey Ballet is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its holiday production of The Nutcracker, which means audiences have enjoyed an evening of grace, beauty, charm, and magnificent dancing and music for a quarter of a century. The annual holiday event is back at the Auditorium Theatre, billed as “America’s #1 Nutcracker.” While New York City Ballet may scoff at that claim, the Joffrey production stands proud as a world-class feast for the eye and ear, engaging the senses of viewers from childhood through the senior citizen plateau.
The Nutcracker blends its pageantry with the score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Among the many boons of the Joffrey presentation is the pleasure of hearing the full Tchaikovsky score. A 20-minute condensation is world famous as the Nutcracker Suite, but there is so much more melodious music beyond the Greatest Hits of the suite, especially as performed by the fine Chicago Philharmonic ensemble conducted by Scott Speck.
There are many versions of The Nutcracker story and even the characters have assorted names. Basically, the ballet begins at a sumptuous Christmas Eve party in the 1850’s. The Joffrey edition moves the setting from Europe to an American city, but the costumes and décor look as much like a scene out of Charles Dickens novel as a slice of mid-nineteenth century Americana.
Clara and Fritz are the two children of the party hosts, Mayor and Mrs. Stahlbaum. Fritz is no factor after the first scene but Clara is a continuing character, in the company of the mysterious and magical Dr. Drosselmeyer, the children’s godfather, who presides over the action throughout the ballet. During the Christmas party, Drosselmeyer gives Clara a nutcracker doll in the image of a soldier. The doll later comes to full grown life along with the handsome Nutcracker Prince.
For much of the show, the toys gathered under the Christmas tree come to dancing full-grown life. Some of the second scene is devoted to a battle between an army of mice and a troupe of soldiers led by the Nutcracker Doll. The Joffrey staging doesn’t exploit the mouse characters as much as other productions I’ve seen, where the mice led by the Mouse King are a sinister force and the battle with the soldiers is violent enough to frighten small children in the audience. The first act ends in the dazzling Land of Snow, ruled by the Snow Queen and Snow King and Snow Prince.
The second act continues the fantasy as the story moves to the enchanted Kingdom of Sweets. In a series of divertissements, the score’s most familiar themes are performed by the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Nutcracker Prince, and a swarm of dancers representing foods and flowers from throughout the world.
This act is almost entirely free of any narrative. It’s just one superior dance sequence after another. The audience favorites on opening night were Anastacia Holden and Ricardo Santos humorously and energetically portraying Tea from China, followed by four high spirited dancers representing nougats from Russia (Derrick Agnoletti, Yoshihisa Arai, John Mark Giragosian, and Jeraldine Mendoza). Another applauded character was Mother Ginger, a giant puppet who looks like it was borrowed from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Eight spritely children emerge from within the puppet’s voluminous skirts, dance up a storm, and retreat back where they came from.
The Waltz of the Flowers is pure dancing with artists representing various flowers, accompanied by their cavaliers. The ballet then closes with the Grand Pas De Deux by the Sugar Plum Fairy (April Daly) and the Nutcracker Prince (Dylan Gutierrez), the stars of the company. At the end, Clara and Drosselmeyer depart from the enchanted land in a balloon, much like Dorothy returning from the Land of Oz back to Kansas. There are other endings to the story, but this one is appropriately impressive as a special effect.
Informed balletomanes doubtless will take away an appreciation of the dancing skills displayed on the Auditorium stage that may bypass viewers less knowledgeable about classical dance. But everyone will appreciate the ravishing costumes, notably the lovely pastel colored outfits worn in the Dance of the Flowers. The sets are colorful to the point of opulence, enhanced by evocative lighting. The spectacle of the Joffrey production is perfectly matched to the expansive Auditorium stage and the baroque elegance of the theater’s interior.
The production has what seems like a cast of thousands, many of them youngsters who dance with amazing skill and assurance. Among, the adults, Daly and Gutierrez are the headliners but there are masterful contributions from Christine Rocas as the Snow Queen and Ricardo Santos as the Snow Prince ahead of his appearance as one half of the Tea from China (he also plays Clara’s brother, Fritz). Caitlin Meighan is a fetching Clara, though she spends most of the second act seated as a side stage observer with Drosselmeyer.
One sure-fire barometer of the success of a family entertainment like The Nutcracker is the reaction from the children in the audience. This show is not for youngsters less than 6 years old (I was seated next to a four year old little girl who fidgeted the entire performance until her mother mercifully took her home late in the second act). Otherwise the kiddies around me seemed totally involved in the action, possibly because they had brothers or sisters among the young performers on stage or more likely, because they were genuinely enraptured by the spectacle of the show. The participation by the younger generation isn’t limited to the dancers. Youth choirs from the Chicagoland metropolitan area perform the choral parts in the Land of Snow scene and entertain patrons with holiday songs in the lobby before the performance and during the intermission.
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