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Joffrey Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ brims with wit and magic

As the Joffrey Ballet has demonstrated throughout the past couple of seasons — in its productions of  “Prodigal Son,” “RAkU,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Swan Lake” — this is a company that can tell a story with grand panache.

Robert Joffrey’s version of “The Nutcracker,” with its distinctive Victorian-era American setting and its grand Tchaikovsky score, has been the story it has told most often since its debut in 1987  — and the wonder is that the company still finds ways to make it sparkle anew.

THE JOFFREY BALLET IN ‘THE NUTCRACKER’

Highly recommended

When: Through Dec. 28

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress

Tickets: $32-$134

Info: (800) 982-2787; joffrey.org

Run time: 2 hours with one intermission

The audience that packed the Auditorium Theatre for Friday’s opening night performance of this “rite of winter” was a testament to the enduring charms of the dance-and-spectacle-filled classic — a production that is continually tweaked to serve as a grand showcase for the full roster of the Joffrey dancers, as well as more than a hundred children who bring their unique personalities and charming dance skills to the roles of party guests, mice, dolls, soldiers and snow tree angels.

Initially conceived and directed by Joffrey, with Gerald Arpino’s choreography animating two crucial, richly danced sections (“Waltz of the Snowflakes,” which features an almost blizzardlike storm, and “Waltz of the Flowers,” a great blossoming of high-speed lyricism), this version of the ballet features everything from 19th century social dances, magic tricks, and a grand-scale puppet courtesy of Muppets man Kermit Love, to a fierce battle between mice and toy soldiers. And along with all the theatrical elements, there also are several grand pas de deux and a slew of novelty dances that offer intense tests of  classical technique.

Orchestrating the magic in this story is Dr. Drosselmeyer (a charismatic turn by the towering, debonair Fabrice Calmels), godfather of the story’s central siblings — the nurturing young girl Clara (portrayed with warmth and ease by Caitlin Meighan) and her wild, mischievous brother, Fritz (Elivelton Tomazi, who appears later as the Snow Prince and gives a dazzling performance).

The siblings’ elegant parents morph into the Snow Queen (Victoria Jaiani) and Snow King (Temur Suluashvili), and this pair’s impeccable dancing takes an even more breathtaking turn when they appear in the impossibly sensual Coffee from Arabia variation in the second act.

Joffrey - Nutcracker, Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili as Arabian - Photo by Herbert Migdoll

Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili. | Photo by Herbert Migdoll

The grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince was danced with pristine beauty by Jeraldine Mendoza (a lithe, coolly elegant beauty with an ideal line and confident balances) and her fine partner, Dylan Gutierrez.

Joffrey - Nutcracker, Jeraldine Mendoza as Sugar Plum Fairy - Photo by Cheryl Mann (1)

Jeraldine Mendoza as Sugar Plum Fairy. | Photo by Cheryl Mann

Matthew Adamczyk was a zesty Mouse King. Cara Marie Gary and Yoshihisa Arai (as Columbine and Harlequin), and Elizabeth Hansen and Rory Hohenstein (as Vivandiere and her Soldier) earned laughs as the Mechanical Dolls. And in the Kingdom of Sweets, Amber Neumann was a high-spirited Chocolate from Spain; Amanda Assucena and Tomazi were the playful Tea from China duo; Jacqueline Moscicke, along with Arai, Raul Cassola and Lucas Segovia delighted the audience as the whirling Nougats from Russia, and Mahallia Ward and Kara Zimmerman (joined by Meighan), gave a lovely rendition of the Marzipan Shepherdesses. The scene featuring giant Mother Ginger (Francis Kane), whose skirt hides a slew of (notably excellent) children, was particularly appealing this year. Cheers for Katie Kirwan, the children’s ballet master.

The Chicago Philharmonic was in its usual top-notch form under Scott Speck’s direction, with the angelic voices of local children’s choruses adding to the pleasure of live music.

NOTE: There will be many rotations in the “Nutcracker” cast during the next couple of weeks. This is a big, demanding, end-of-year party for the company, as well as for the audience.