The Joffrey Ballet unveiled a daringly new Chicago-centric version of “The Nutcracker” in 2016, moving the action to five months before the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 — a grand, transformative moment in the city’s history.
The work by famed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon proved to be an immediate hit with audiences, but a big question was whether it would wear well. Repeated choruses of cheers made clear Saturday evening at the Auditorium Theatre that the answer is a resounding yes.
Running through Dec. 29, the returning production comes off as fresh, inventive and entertaining as ever, with six rotating casts of 93 dancers in each performance, including 50 children from the company’s training programs.
The production is virtually unchanged from 2016 except for the addition of the Worker Girl in the Act 1 party scene, a character created through the Joffrey’s adaptive program for students with diverse movement abilities. This year, the role alternates between Emma Lookatch and Larke Johnson.
Perhaps to the consternation of some strict traditionalists, this reimagined production of “The Nutcracker” contains no Kingdom of Sweets and no Sugar Plum Fairy; she has been changed into the Queen of the Fair. Herr Drosselmeyer, the strange gentleman who typically powers the ballet’s enchantments, has become the ubiquitous Great Impresario of the Fair. Recasting the ballet in a more down-to-earth light, the party scene takes place not in an opulent Victorian mansion but in the spartan confines of a cabin of on the construction grounds of the fair. It is occupied by a widowed mother, who is sculpting the fair’s central image, the Statue of the Republic, and her children — Franz and Marie.
The families of the fair’s immigrant workers arrive for a Christmas party, and afterward, as Marie falls asleep, all the expected happenings take place with the help of the Impresario. These include the family’s Charlie Brown-like Christmas tree growing to gargantuan size and Marie’s nutcracker doll turning into a handsome prince who accompanies her on a fantastical journey.
In this Chicago-tinged telling, the reality of the world’s fair and the story’s make-believe commingle. And the slick, high-tech projections in Julian Crouch’s scenic design are nicely balanced by such low-tech effects as the old-fashioned shadow theater in the party scene and the delightful (if slightly scary), scampering puppet rats.
Anchoring everything is Tchaikovsky’s timeless, evocative, and, of course, unaltered score, which is effectively animated by the Joffrey’s music director, Scott Speck, and the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra.
Wheeldon opted not for flashiness or radical innovation but clear, efficient choreography that maintains the classical flavor of the ballet, especially in the beautiful snow scene, and smartly propels the action forward.
Instead of the usual grand pas de deux (a multipart, extended duet) in Act 2, the Queen of the Fair and the Impresario perform a more modestly scaled duet that was handsome and well-crafted but not unduly showy. It was compellingly performed Saturday evening by April Daly and Fabrice Calmels, who proved to be a charismatic presence all evening.
Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez adroitly realized the ballet’s most striking duet, which is arguably the sensual Arabian divertissement in Act 2 with its undulating, sometimes interlocking arm movements and geometric poses.
Also deserving mention were Anais Bueno, a fluid, lissome dancer who aptly conveyed the child-like astonishment of Marie, and Greig Matthews, who, though not especially acrobatic, proved to be a good match as Prince Peter.
Whatever is lost is more than made up by what is gained in this highly original transformation of “The Nutcracker,” which continues to reinvigorate the magic and wonder of this endearing 127-year-old ballet.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.