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Joffrey’s ‘Nutcracker’ always works its magic

For many families, a trip to “The Nutcracker” is a holiday tradition as time-tested and cherished as “A Christmas Carol.” Like Dickens’ play, “The Nutcracker” is the lifeblood of American ballet companies. It’s an annual deal between artists and audiences who sell the tickets that keep the lights on for many companies.

Americans love “The Nutcracker” because it is an unwavering thesis about dreams coming true. Dreams are kind of our job. So ballet companies continue to do this. And we continue to love it.

The Joffrey Ballet’s version of the holiday classic opened Saturday afternoon and performances continue through December 27 at the Lyric Opera House.

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon had big shoes to fill, re-imagining Robert Joffrey’s 2016 worn-out, traditional version with a hyper-local bent. The libretto by children’s author Brian Selznick overlaps Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition with ETA Hoffmann’s story about a young girl who falls asleep and enters a magical kingdom of candy and fairies.

This pairing fits well, even though a gun-toting, rope-strapped Edson Barbosa appears as Buffalo Bill in the second act.

Immigrant Marie, her brother Franz, and their single mother live in a shantytown on the edge of Jackson Park near the fairgrounds. Fair staff gather for a low-key holiday party and receive a surprise visit from a Daniel Burnham-type figure called the Grand Impresario. They exchange gifts, dance, and have fun with paper masks and steampunk-like shadow puppets. The Impresario makes Anne and the children proud by giving Marie a special nutcracker doll.

This “party scene,” as it is colloquially known, is full of little details that become even more apparent as the ballet marinates in Joffrey’s talented hands (and feet). A few subtle changes seem big to this reviewer; most importantly, the richer instrumentation of the Grandfather Dance towards the end of this scene (though this “Nutcracker” has no grandparents). Wheeldon initially assigned the score to three uncredited Lyric Opera Orchestra musicians, who joined the dancers on stage as party guests (and did a wonderful job playing that role). It made sense: Working-class immigrants obviously didn’t have a full orchestra in their living room. But “The Nutcracker” is often not about common sense. It’s about magic. And I wonder. And dreams. Tchaikovsky’s music, as written, is wonderful. Then the magic comes when Marie falls into Dreamland.

In her first season, Anabelle de la Nuez appears as Marie, with her tiny figure and porcelain features matching the childlike innocence she brings to the role. Joffrey veteran Alberto Velazquez also takes on a new role in his first outing as the Grand Impresario. Opposite Velazquez is Amanda Assucena as the Mother and Queen of the Fair in Marie’s dream, shaped after the Statue of the Republic. Rounding out the lead roles is José Pablo Castro Cuevas, dancing the lead role for the first time as Peter, the Impresario’s assistant and Marie’s lover. Castro Cuevas is having the best season of his career so far, as is Joffrey Academy student Sheppard Littrell, who takes on the lively Franz, fresh off his role as William in Liam Scarlett’s “Frankenstein.”

Anabelle de la Nuez and José Pablo Castro Cuevas, production 2023 "Nutcracker" by the Joffrey Ballet.

Amid all this hilarity is a sinister mouse catcher (Dylan Gutierrez) who hunts feisty rodent puppets designed by Basil Twist. This, of course, foreshadows Marie’s dream. In an “Alice in Wonderland” style move, the Christmas tree grows. The mice and toy soldiers under the tree grow to their full size. Marie’s now half-human, half-doll nutcracker (danced by Maxwell Dawe) and the mouse king (splendidly captured by Gutierrez) do battle, with the doll emerging from the front and Castro Cuevas’ as a handsome prince leading Marie to a magical place. It turns into . kingdom.

On their way there, they encountered winter weather. Admiration and curiosity peak in the snow scene, which is brighter, colder and, I think, snowier than ever before.

The fact that Wheeldon continues to refine and improve his ballet encourages those who watch him year after year. And this turns into an increasingly magical spectacle for those encountering “The Nutcracker” for the first time. On Joffrey’s part, it couldn’t be danced better, but parts of Wheeldon’s choreography remain awkward and clunky. No ballerina should be asked to fall to the floor and twirl around on her backside while wearing a tutu; certainly not someone tasked with doing so with dignity and grace. Somehow they do it that way. Lest it sound too negative, it’s worth repeating that this scene is utterly beautiful and filled with unwavering joy – turned up to 11 as a group of tiny “snow babies” fly through this winter wonderland.

2023 production: Zachary Manske, Yumi Kanazawa and Hyuma Kiyosawa "Nutcracker" by the Joffrey Ballet.

Much of the second act of “The Nutcracker” is an exposition of multicultural variations framed after Midway, like the World’s Fair; is a series of pavilions that introduced fair visitors to global cultures that Americans at the time would not otherwise have learned about. Standout performances include Gutierrez and Jeraldine Mendoza in the silky, sensual Arabian variation and the aforementioned Barbosa’s satirical portrayal of Buffalo Bill Cody. But the real stars of the second act are a dancing troupe of nuts whose shells occasionally crack to reveal ridiculously cute children grinning and winking at the crowd from under their fuzzy, hooded nutmeat leotards. Fernando Duarte adds just the right amount of camp as the drag character Mother Nutcracker, who looks after those nuts and a group of little dancing soldiers.

As impresario, Velazquez is the perfect partner for Assucena in the ballet’s penultimate variation: a maze-like pretzel in dance form that this pair manages to perfect. And the typical Waltz of the Flowers, a nod to one of the greatest innovations of the 1893 World’s Fair, was inspired by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.’s carnival creation.

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However, when Marie wakes up, she realizes that her dream is not a fairy tale land. It’s right across from the breakfast table.

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.

Review: Joffrey Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” (3.5 stars)

When: until December 27

Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive

Screening time: 2 hours including intermission

Tickets: $36-$198 at 312-386-8905 joffrey.org

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