Review: The Nutcracker (Joffrey Ballet Chicago)

December 14, 2012
Chicago Theater Beat
Lauren Whalen

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The Nutcracker. For ballet companies, it’s a reliable cash cow that often funds the rest of the season. For many dancers, it’s the bane of their existence as they gear up for yet another year of snowflakes and flowers. For audience members, it’s a tradition as reliable as Thanksgiving turkey, a destination where far-flung friends can reunite, comfort in knowing exactly what you’ll see and hear. The Joffrey Ballet ’s silver anniversary production boasts impressive casting, sweet choreography and appealing if staid visuals, a pleasurable holiday confection for all.

 Herbert Migdoll)This year marks the company’s 25th annual Nutcracker production, which debuted in 1987 with choreography by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino – and featuring Ashley C. Wheater, now the Joffrey’s Artistic Director. Robert Joffrey changed the traditional European setting to a 19th century American home, peppering the Stahlbaum family Christmas tree with toys from his own childhood. However, the signature elements remain: dastardly mice, heroic toy soldiers, sweets come alive, and of course, a wide-eyed little girl and her Nutcracker doll, a gift from her eccentric godfather. Tchaikovsky’s score is both peppy and soulful (the haunting grand pas de deux music was written after the death of the legendary composer’s sister), a striking undercurrent to Joffrey and Arpino’s handsome steps.

Certainly a ballet company doesn’t have the energy or resources to revamp the production every year – nor should they, as there is much reassurance in consistency. However, Oliver Smith’s set could use a reboot. The large backdrops of the Stahlbaum home, the enchanted forest and the Land of the Sweets are impressive, but feel a bit cold up close. The Mice costumes, Clara’s horse and the giant matron Mother Ginger, designed by Kermit Love (who also created Big Bird), remain delightfully whimsical from all angles, and the costumes are subtle yet vibrant, especially the colorful party garb and the Sugar Plum Fairy’s glittering tutu. Choreography highlights include the opening scene, which conveys a warm, intimate sense of family, and the positively magic Snow variations.

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Joffrey’s stunning coterie of dancers are in full force this season, delighting audiences with refined athleticism and joie de vivre. Christine Rocas and Rory Hohenstein perfectly complement one another in the roles of Clara’s parents, the Snow King and Queen and the Arabian Coffee pas de deux. Hohenstein is an emerging star with his steady, pleasant presence, and Rocas has breathtaking extensions and an elegant demeanor. Mauro Villanueva dances the enigmatic Herr Drosselmeier with grace and humor, bringing just the right amount of darkness. Derrick Agnoletti brings his trademark zest to the Russian dance, and Ricardo Santos displays impressive turns and leaps in the triple role of little brother Fritz, the Snow Prince and the male Chinese Tea. Caitlin Meighan is a convincingly girlish Clara, and though he appears nervous at times, Dylan Gutierrez portrays the Nutcracker Prince with courageous, chivalrous aplomb. April Daly interprets the Sugar Plum Fairy with her signature trembling delicacy – though her technique is flawless, I do prefer a bit more verve in such an iconic role.

Last year, the Joffrey Nutcracker was recognized with the Goldstar National Nutcracker Award as the United States’ “Best Loved Nutcracker”. It’s easy to love: brilliant music, pretty dancing, and a healthy dose mixed with a little bit of longing. Joffrey’s silver anniversary production is, as always, a charming ritual that evokes my childhood in the best possible way. No matter how old I get or how many Nutcrackers I see, I always gasp when that first snowflake falls.

  Rating: ★★★½    

The Nutcracker continues through December 27th at Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress (map). Tickets are $31-$132, and are available by phone (800-982-2787) or online through the Joffrey website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Joffrey.org. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)

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Photos by Herbert Migdoll