Chicago Festival Ballet Nutcracker Review - A Plum of a Production

When one thinks of ballet, it sometimes seems fancy, highbrow.  Maybe not where one has “a good time.”  That’s simply not true in the case of the Chicago Festival Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker at the McAninch Arts Center in Glen Ellyn.  I had a great time at the Saturday matinee performance and several times I had an ear-to-ear smile.  And the mixed audience of adults and children agreed with me.


Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier (Eckman and Herrera)

This is Ken Von Heidecke’s twenty-fifth anniversary production of the beloved Tchaikovsky score at The MAC and it entertained and delivered a magical afternoon of beautiful music and soaring choreography.  The music was brought to life flawlessly by the New Philharmonic Orchestra, Maestro Kirk Muspratt conducting.

Clara and the Nutcracker King in the midst of her dream


The MAC is an excellent venue for a variety of performing arts in Chicago’s western suburbs.  The auditorium is high quality, they serve snacks and drinks (including beer and wine), and the parking is close, plentiful, and free.  The cost for the professional productions is reasonable, and lends itself to making events such as The Nutcracker a family affair.


The Nutcracker opens on Christmas Eve in the family parlor.  Clara (played wonderfully at the matinee performance by Julia Ragus), the young ingénue, receives a nutcracker as a gift, which her brother (played by Justin Smusz) tries to steal from her.  When she falls asleep, she dreams that the nutcracker comes alive and leads her to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Snow Queen and many other characters and cultures.  We are brought into the dream with her and enjoy the stories the dances depict through the choreography and costume.


Clara delights (Julia Ragus)

In Act I, Christmas Eve is brought to life in Clara’s home with children and adults dancing and playing.  This is a big production, and the performers are very professional and well-rehearsed.  The children had intricate steps to perform and the adults flowed across the room in a waltzing abandon.  The wind up dolls (Jamy Meek and Lucy Wang) were entertaining to watch, and later in the dream, the cast of characters including extremely cute mice led us up to the first act climax of the Snowflake Dance where the Snow King and Queen enthralled us, surrounded by snowflakes.  This is first time we get to view Autumn Eckman and Randy Herrara, who later became the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier.  Their effortless grace and presence brought the first act to a close with a hunger for more.

Cute mice in Clara's dream

Nutcracker King (Jamy Meek)

Snow Queen and King (Autumn Eckman and Randy Herrera)

After a break, Clara and the Nutcracker settle in to watch the dances of the various cultures including Italian, Chinese, Arabian, and Russian.  Each small set was performed so well and enjoyably – this is where I found myself grinning and on the edge of my seat for more.  And when the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier performed their two Pas de Deux’s, I sighed with the pleasure and awe of their strength, agility, and grace.

The Arabian Dance (Eckman and Herrera)

The Chinese Dance (Alexandra Guckel, Mary Wielgos, and Patrick Ingram)


Much of the cast is made up of Chicago and Chicago suburban dancers, including many from Von Heidecke’s Ballet troupe.  The guest artists in principal roles have much dance experience in Chicago and other parts of the country.  Eckman is a former Luna Negra Dance Theatre and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer and an acclaimed choreographer in her own right.  Randy Herrara is a former Joffrey Ballet dancer and Houston Ballet principal.   Uncle Drosselmeyer is played by former Joffrey Ballet company member Michael Anderson.  He is joined by former Hubbard Street dancer Jamy Meek (playing the Nutcracker prince in addition to one of the Dolls) and former River North Dance Chicago company member Jeffrey Wolf playing the Mouse King.


One of two Pas de Deux (Eckman and Herrera)


The set (Sahin Sahinoglu and John Gant) served as a nice backdrop to the main focus of the dance.  I liked the minimal use of props, but great attention detail to the set, including a realistic fireplace and nice way of showing in the dream that Clara was brought down to the size of the nutcracker with the use of the scene behind her.  The costumes (Jeff Hendry and Oswaldo Muniz) were colorful and eye-catching.   I loved the Doll costumes, Mouse King suit and the Arabian Dance costumes, to name a few.


This Nutcracker production was professional and engaging from start to finish.   Tchaikovsky’s well-known score was brought to life, each dance providing the magic that has entertained audiences at the MAC for twenty-five years.  Let’s hope that we will continue to see the Nutcracker at the MAC under Ken Von Heidecke’s tutelage for many years to come.


For information on other performing arts at the MAC, please visit the webpage here or call their box office at 630-942-4000.  The MAC is located at 425 Fawell Blvd, Glen Ellyn, IL.


Information on Ken Von Heidecke’s Dance Center can be found here.


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