The Wheeldon hi-tech Nutcracker Review - The Joffrey's New Ballet and Spectacle

The new Joffrey “Nutcracker",  choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, currently in production at The Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress through December 30th is an extravaganza of lights, costumes, puppets, projections, curtains and props, but a departure from tradition in a number of ways. An absorbing spectacle, in its new larger than mythic incarnation, it could serve as a commercial for what has become a prodigiously packaged holiday season.

Roy Hohenstein as The Ratcatcher

 Nobody in the revisionist culture or in the politically correct art world could quarrel with Brian Selznick resetting the scene from the mansion of a city governor in 1816 Germany to the shack of a poor immigrant Colombian Exposition fair-worker in 1893 Chicago. Many of the essentials of the story are still the same: a young girl with a mischievous brother, a dream of marvels, the various dances of the peoples of the world here convincingly connected to the paviions of the actual fair. Thankfully, the tree still grew, the snow still fell, and the nutcracker still got magically repaired.

Miguel Angel Blanco as The Great Impresario of the Fair

 On the other hand, some of the most important aspects of the great ballet have been changed- and, it seems, simply for the sake of change. What has happened to Herr Drosselmeyer? Wasn’t it proletarian enough for him to be the childrens godfather, a clockmaker and inventor? What sense does it make for him to morph into “The Great Impresario of the Fair"; why would such an important personage come into this humble home, shower gifts upon and dance heavily with the hoi polloi? Certainly Marie (formerly Clara) and her single mother don’t need boyfriends- this has always been a tale free from romantic entanglements. Truly, there was nothing gained by altering the ecstatic Tchaikovsky score- in the party scene, there are musicians onstage who join in interposing “folk” music by Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin- there were other Act 1 changes in the musical phrasing and coupling.

Aberto Velazquez as The Nutcracker

 Most importantly, though, it is the young girl’s dream, peopled with wonderful characters, that has transported generations of balletomanes, young and old, all over the world. Likewise, it has served to provide a role for virtually every neophyte in every corps de ballet since Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov crafted the dances in 1892 to the inimitable strains of some of the most gorgeous music ever composed. This version renders the dance and that music secondary to conspicuously mammoth light effects that usurp even the proscenium of the grand Auditorium stage.

Alberto Velazquez as The Nutcracker and Amanda Assucena as Marie

  Of course, the score was beautifully performed by the Chicago Philharmonic under the baton of Scott Speck- a conductor and an orchestra who can well be called expert in Tchaikovsky’s music- but their efforts were overawed and overshot by the pyrotechnics, albeit marvelous in scope and execution, thanks to lighting designer Natasha Katz and projection designer Benjamin Pearcy. The stage was also –alas, too often- overcrowded by dancers and dwarfed by the special effects, which rendered their moves difficult to perceive and appreciate, particularly in the “snowflake” scenes.

The Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon"s The Nutcracker

However, there was much to delight the eyes. The night this reviewer attended, Marie was portrayed with incandescent technical virtuosity by Cara Marie GrayYoshihisa Arai was a joyful and transporting vision as Peter and The Nutcracker. The duets were lovely, particularly Cristine Rocas with Fabrice Calmels in the Arabian dance, although in a production largely to be seen by children, it was unnecesaary to flash the ballerina's underpants. The Juliun Crouch set and costumes were vivid and memorable, especially the masks; the Rat King and The Nutcracker costumes both were marvels of craftmanship. Basil Twist's puppetry was seamlessly workable and extremely clever.


In the Chinese dance, the dancers wove the tale with two giant green articulated snakes – a captivating inclusion. Dylan Gutierrez as Buffalo Bill was terrific, and must have spent many hours learning his lasso tricks. A truly heartwarming scene was everybody’s favorite- the children emerge dressed as walnuts from under a huge house straddled by a large "doll." They are filled with glee and delight as they peek out from their splittable costumes and cavort gracefully about. Finally, the puppet rats were an adorable and welcome sight scampering all over the “cottage” and the stage.

Miguel Angel Blanco as The Great Impresario of the Fair, Alberto Velazquez as TheNutcracker, Amanda Assucena as Marie

 It’s not that the gigantic effects weren’t amazing in themselves- the mesmerizing backdrops of the fair, the beguiling statue, the wondrous moving gondola, and all the marvelous revelations created by the lifting of the gauzy curtains. It’s just that sometimes they functioned as an aesthetic distraction, like flowers that have been cloned to grow in shades never seen in nature. Wheeldon himself has been quoted as saying “As soon as you are aware that you are watching projections you lose the magic”. The sold-out audience appeared to be copiously bemused and enthralled.

Fernando Duarte as Chinese Dancer


For information and tickets to The Nutcracker and all the great Joffrey ballets, go to the Joffrey website

For all the wonderful productions at The Auditorium Theatre, go to the auditoriumtheatre website


All photos by Cheryl Mann



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