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Review: Enticing new “Sugar Hill: Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker”


The Auditorium Theater lost its holiday staple with the Joffrey Ballet’s move to the Lyric Opera House in 2021. But this beautiful, gold-trimmed venue in the Loop may have a new winner with a brand new “Nutcracker” ballet, “Sugar Hill.” with a flamboyant touch.

Jazz greats Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn broke barriers with their 1960 rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1892 “Nutcracker Suite.” Enter “Sugar Hill,” where Tony Award-winning producers David Garfinkle and Ron Simons attempt to capture the same genre-defying production of magic by superimposing the sweet Ellington/Strayhorn suite onto a new libretto from author Jessica Swan.

“Sugar Hill: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker” runs at the Auditorium Theater through December 30.

The original “Nutcracker” ballet was based on ETA Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” And those familiar with “The Nutcracker” will find clever parallels between “Sugar Hill” and the popular ballet: An imaginative young girl (her name is Lena Stall, reminiscent of the Stahlbaum family surname in the traditional ballet) receives a special doll for her family’s holiday. She falls asleep at the party and drifts away to the magical land of her dreams, battling a horde of mice and a snowstorm along the way. Swan, the nutcracker, and an international troupe of fantasy figures transport Lena from a 19th-century German living room to 1930s New York.

Instead of a sugar-coated Kingdom of Desserts, Lena’s dream world is Sugar Hill, the famous Manhattan neighborhood that thrived in the ’30s; It has notable residents such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Cab Calloway and, appropriately, Duke Ellington. Her Prince (danced by Jinhao Zhang on Thursday) is a depressed jazz musician who finds his passion again as a passenger on Lena’s journey.

Those who knew Ellington and Strayhorn will also quickly move away. Conductor and pianist Harold O’Neal leads a magnificent big band through “The Nutcracker,” supported by more than 20 additional selections from the two composers’ catalogs. Instead of sending them to the orchestra pit, as it should be, the troupe swallows almost half of the Auditorium Theatre’s stage, located on the platform behind the dancers.

Lena (danced by Alicia Mae Holloway of Dance Theater of Harlem on Thursday) sneaks out of her wealthy parents’ Upper West Side home and heads to Harlem to “Take the Train” – featuring angelic jazz singer Jennifer Jade Ledesna performing Billy Strayhorn’s hit tune thanks to . Lena finds herself in a jazz club, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, immersed in an intoxicating world of music and dance. This is where the magic of “Sugar Hill” emerges.

Director and choreographer Joshua Bergasse (who won an Emmy for NBC’s “Smash”) got additional moves from Omar Nieves, Jon Boogz and Caleb Teicher. It all comes together in a Savoy-like scene that escalates into a battle with beer-bellied rats that resemble some of the bullies Lena encounters on her way to Harlem, and through a foggy blizzard as she heads to the treetops on Lenox Boulevard for some light entertainment. carnival of dancing animals.

There’s ballet here, Lindy Hop there; ballroom in this corner and acrobatics in that corner; tap dancing on cafe tables and having fun on the subway. It’s a lot to ask of this star-studded cast, many of whom have extraordinary talents who can transform from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers to Frankie Manning and Norma Miller in one moment.

Olivia Tang-Mifsud, Ayaka Kamei, Alicia Mae Holloway and Jinhao Zhang "Sugar Hill: Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker" at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago.

Theater Cycle


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It looks like this brand new production is still working out some glitches and wonky transitions. Bits of Swan’s convoluted story don’t quite translate to the stage. Despite its apparent opulence, the show’s trappings are rather simple and sloppy; It relies on impressive lighting design (Christopher Annas-Lee), eye-catching costumes (David Kaley), solid dancing and that incredible band to fill it out. “Sugar Hill” was originally scheduled to open in New York last month but never materialized, holding its world premiere in Chicago before canceling several shows and further cementing an already limited release. Apparently these Broadway producers see dance as a difficult market. We could tell you that, but as a full Auditorium Theater audience made clear Thursday night, there’s a lot to admire in “Sugar Hill.” And that’s worth fighting for.

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.

Review: “Sugar Hill: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker” (3 stars)

When: Until December 30 at 14.00

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Pkwy.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission

Tickets: $52-$100 at 312-341-2300 and auditoriumtheatre.org

Brenda Braxton "Sugar Hill: Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker" at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago.

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