Joffrey’s ‘Nutcracker’ grows even more magical on second viewing

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Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition is the backdrop for the Joffrey Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

The Joffrey Ballet debuted its ingeniously re-envisioned $4 million production of ‘The Nutcracker” last December after a brief test run in Iowa (during which director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon suffered a broken ankle) and just a few dress rehearsals at the Auditorium Theatre. It was a ridiculously brief amount of polishing time for a world premiere every bit as complex as a new Broadway musical that often enjoys a solid month of previews. Nevertheless, the Chicago opening was a triumph, and the beauty and innovation of the ballet’s initial run suggested a classic had been born.

Friday evening, as the curtain rose on the new “Nutcracker’s” second season, the initial sense of wonder was only confirmed. The ballet has mellowed, too, becoming clearer and deeper in both its storytelling (an inspired mix of Chicago history and theatrical fantasy) and dancing (a beguiling blend of classical ballet and folk themes). Truly, the stuff of magic.

THE JOFFREY BALLET IN ‘THE NUTCRACKER’ Highly recommended When: Through Dec. 30 Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Tickets: $35 – $165 Info: (312) 386-8905; Run time: 2 hours with one intermission

Victoria Jaiani (left) and Miguel Angel Blanco in the Joffrey Ballet production of “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Victoria Jaiani (left) and Miguel Angel Blanco in the Joffrey Ballet production of “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

There is so much to absorb and delight in during this “Nutcracker’s” rapid-fire two hours that it takes several viewings to fully appreciate its seamless, richly detailed melding of whimsy, revelation and romance, and its fine balance between pure dance and spectacle. Credit Wheeldon, of course, and his superb collaborators: writer Brian Selznick and designers Julian Crouch (sets and costumes), Natasha Katz (lighting), Basil Twist (puppetry) and Ben Pearcy (projections). Toast the Chicago Philharmonic and conductor Scott Speck, whose rendering of the Tchaikovsky score is ideal. But above all, celebrate the Joffrey dancers, whose meticulous technique is complemented by fine characterizations.

Breaking from tradition in countless ways, yet fully true to the spirit of the story, Wheeldon’s “Nutcracker” is set against the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, whose monumental display of new technology, fantastical architecture, global cultures and pure imagination altered the image of Chicago, and was brought to life in no small part by a veritable army of immigrant laborers and artisans.

The magician in this “Nutcracker” is the visionary architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, referred to here only as The Great Impresario of the Fair. He makes a surprise visit to the homespun 1892 Christmas Eve celebration of the workers who gather in the studio of Mother, the widowed sculptress crafting the Fair’s iconic 65-foot-tall Statue of the Republic, and her children, Marie (about to experience her first crush) and naughty brother, Franz. It is just a few months before the Exposition opens and posters announce its arrival, rats scurry around the construction site, and the first Ferris Wheel and many pavilions are tantalizing works in progress. (The Auditorium Theatre opened at the same time, and this production pays homage to it in an exceptionally beautiful scene.)

The party-goers here join in Eastern European style folk dances, with a trio of onstage musicians playing Tchaikovsky’s tunes in klezmer-inflected style. The guests contribute potluck treats and a straggly little Christmas tree that will undergo an eye-popping transformation. The Impresario, clearly attracted to Mother, gives Marie the gift of a nutcracker prince and later guides her dreams, including the classic face-off between toy soldiers and combative rats, a formidable snowstorm of dancers, and a grand entrance into the Exposition (accompanied by her new real-life “prince,” the Impresario’s apprentice, Peter), via a giant stone gondola. The ballet’s second act unfolds on the fairgrounds, where Mother is now Queen of the Fair (the embodiment of her own gilded sculpture), and specialty acts from the international pavilions are performed.

A scene from the Joffrey Ballet production of “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

A scene from the Joffrey Ballet production of “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

“The Nutcracker’s” 33 performances will feature several different casts. Opening night honors went to Miguel Angel Blanco, an elegant, benevolent Impresario and splendid partner for the ever astonishing Victoria Jaiani as Queen, whose moves in the stunning grand pas de deux were pure sculpture in motion. The chemistry between Marie (Amanda Assucena, a most musical and fluid dancer) and her prince (the easily charming Alberto Velazquez) was enchanting, and full of youthful wonder.

Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels instantly raised the temperature in the sexy Arabian pas de deux. The fleet and playful Hansol Jeong excelled in the Chinese dance. Dylan Gutierrez lassoed in applause as Buffalo Bill. And Fernando Duarte earned big laughs for his campy Mother Nutcracker, who oversees a bevy of dancing walnuts (performed by some of the more than 90 young dancers to appear in the ballet).

It was Burnham who proclaimed: “Make no small plans.” The Joffrey’s “Nutcracker” clearly took him at his word.

The Joffrey Ballet’s Miguel Angel Blanco and Amanda Assucena in “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

The Joffrey Ballet’s Miguel Angel Blanco and Amanda Assucena in “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

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