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Joffrey ‘Nutcracker’ returns, relocated and refreshed

Carefully altered for its transplant to the Lyric Opera House, the holiday favorite still feels fresh and spontaneous.

A child imagines her new nutcracker (José Pablo Castro Cuevas, right, with Temur Suluashvili) transforms into a prince in the Joffrey Ballet production of “The Nutcracker.”
© Todd Rosenberg

The Joffrey Ballet’s magnificently reimagined “Nutcracker” is only six years old, and last year the grand ballet didn’t happen at all. No wonder it seems like giddy victory at the Lyric Opera House, where Christopher Wheeldon’s 2016 production, a celebration of Chicago’s audacious spirit in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, has been so neatly re-fitted that it seems yet again new.

Bathed in gilding of the freshly refurbished Lyric Opera House, and awash with the Russian romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s 1892 music as magnificently played for the Joffrey by the Lyric Opera Orchestra, there is a fairy-tale quality to this uniquely Chicago version of an adolescent girl’s fantasy that her wooden nutcracker comes to life as the prince of her dreams.

The girl, known as Clara in the Tchaikovsky original, is now Marie. She lives with her brother and their widowed mother among fellow worker families in a neighborhood of shacks at the foot of a project rising behind them — the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

Tchaikovsky’s sparkling ballet is generally set in an upper-class household of Imperial Russia, but in this twist, the only touch of gold we see is in the hands of the girl’s mother, a sculptress shaping what looks like a model of the Fair’s iconic statue. The guests are the mother’s skilled but poor laborer friends, gathering to celebrate the holiday in her humble abode, and this is where an impressive visitor arrives to bestow gifts, including a nutcracker for Marie, whose romantic dream constitutes the rest of this tale.

Given the Great COVID Disruption, or whatever future historians will call the current era, a fairy tale seems just right in this time. This year the company undertook an ambitious schedule of 24 performances, rotating among popular stars on its roster and putting in many first-time opportunities for children and young dancers. In all, it feels like a spontaneous party, but that belies the many intricate adjustments to make this move to the Lyric.

Scenery was re-spaced onstage, because the depth is different than it had been at the Auditorium. And that meant spreading some of the overhead scenery, adjusting some dancer positions, adding a few steps to reach certain spots, and making other minor differences in the complex mix, according to production director Cody Chen.

The audience experience, which was looking downward into a fishbowl setting at the Auditorium, is also different, especially from the main floor. The stage seems straight ahead, or slightly higher, in the opera house seats, requiring additional subtle adjustments that the performers had to practice. The Lyric set aside two rehearsal spaces onsite, enough for 50 or 60 dancers to move around at one time, and special temporary flooring made of wood planks with foam cushioning, crucial to protect dancers’ muscle and bone, was also set in place onstage for the duration.

The “Nutcracker” is by far the largest production of the Joffrey season, involving more than 80 dancers in rotation, including young children, always some of them dancing with the company for the first time ever. It’s also always the first time for some of the people in the backstage areas as well, the ones who must help to manage intricate tricks like the morphing of the little Christmas tree, which grows to an enormous height in Clara’s magical and intricate dream.

The evening production that I saw, on the first day of the run Dec. 4, featured the lovely Amanda Assucena as Marie, the passionate child and graceful dreamer whose imaginary adventure becomes a fight to help save her nutcracker. Her beloved new toy is magically transformed into her dream-state prince — the exceptional José Pablo Castro Cuevas, who immediately faces an army of suddenly very life-size and highly entertaining soldier rats.

The Arabian dance of Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez is a highlight of the second act.
© Todd Rosenberg

With Marie’s help, the soldiers save the day, setting the stage for a magical second act in which Marie and her prince sit in a World’s Fair-style gondola straight out of the Chicago picture books, to witnesses a parade of set pieces that, in this production, represent the various exotic pavilions in the exposition. .

In that second act, the surpassingly exotic elegance of Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez as the Arabian Dancers stole the show for many, but the quartet of Spanish Dancers, Xavier Núñez in his solo Chinese Dance, and a riotous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show transformation of what was once Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance were just as delightful. Christopher Wheeldon’s deeply moving and highly original production has landed on an ideal stage. It should serve this “Nutcracker” well for years to come.