Chicago Theatre Review
Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker” Offers Holiday Delight
Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker at The Auditorium Theatre
Runs December 9-27, 2011
Tickets $30-$115; Box Office (800) 982-2787; www.ticketmaster.com
Review by Darcy Rose Coussens
It may not be Joffrey’s #1 Ballet, but “America’s #1 Nutcracker” Delights All
The Joffrey Ballet’s annual production of Robert Joffrey’s The Nutcracker is well attended each year by little girls in poofy dresses and hair bows, miniature gentlemen in pressed shirts and slicked hair, and adults of all ages. Hailing theirs as “America’s #1 Nutcracker,” Joffrey provides a favorite holiday tradition for many in the Chicagoland area. This ballet is performed by many companies across the country, and yet although Joffrey’s is quite good and a grand experience overall, I’m not sure it is my #1 favorite Nutcracker. Although this theatrical ballet was extremely entertaining and at times breathtaking, there were a few flaws that surprised me from this renowned company. However, it is nonetheless an excellent performance and one I hope they will continue to offer each holiday season.
Several elements of the production were of the highest quality, as is usual for the Joffrey. The Chicago Sinfonietta accompanied the performance with Tchaikovsky’s classic score, and the larger-than-life sets and decorated costumes were extravagant. The party guests were dressed in ruffled dresses and petticoats, and brightly colored tailcoats; the mice wore shining silver masks; and Mother Ginger was an enormous walking puppet. The Nutcracker’s transition from doll to life-size soldier was very cool, and there were several exciting elements of spectacle on display throughout the show. The snow scene was absolutely beautiful with fog and snow falling, and I got chills when the Snow King and Queen made their second entrance to the sound of a children’s choir.
One reason to see the Joffrey’s Nutcracker is for the company’s high caliber dancing. The company members were outstanding overall, and Clara was absolutely darling. Her family members were cleverly weaved into the characters of her elaborate dream: her parents also performed the Snow King and Queen as well as other roles, and her brother Fritz danced other roles, as well. His dancing was some of the best in the show, and during a very impressive series of leaps and turns one little boy near me was audibly inspired. However, I questioned his casting as Fritz, Clara’s annoying brother, because his character’s youthfulness looked strange and distracting on a grown man. This ballet involves a great deal of pantomime and storytelling, and although most of the time the story was clear, there were some confusing moments. One in particular involved a child in an old-fashioned wheelchair brought to the center of the stage. Drosselmeyer, Clara’s mysterious godfather, threw magic glitter on him and I felt the audience holding their breaths; then nothing happened and the child was wheeled away, bringing the party scene from inclusive and diverse to awkward.
The choreography was elegant and exciting, but occasionally baffling. Tchaikovsky’s famous score was meant for, well, the ballet. There are several obvious musical cues that were completely ignored, and the disconnect between the music and the story was off-putting. The second act ran much more smoothly. The Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier’s pas de deux was stunning, and the Sugar Plum Fairy’s famous solo was pristine and precise. I was underwhelmed by the Cavalier’s dance, one I always look forward to for its powerful jumps, because it seemed brief and anticlimactic. Yet the Arabian dance was mesmerizing, the Spanish dancer flawless, and the Waltz of the Flowers one of the most beautiful highlights of the show. This act felt much more like a Joffrey ballet than the first.
Don’t get me wrong; overall this is an enchanting production, and the flurry of activity and focus on presents, toys, and candy is a Christmas dream for children. However, it was the children in the show I was perhaps most confused by. The children in the production did a nice job: they smiled, performed well, and looked lovely in their costumes. Five children’s choirs from the area are featured in the snow scene and perform in the lobby during intermission. Young dancers appeared as Victorian children, dolls, mice, toy soldiers, tree angels, and Polichinelles. The one thing missing was … the dancing. Of the more than one hundred children cast, only the Polichinelles in the Mother Ginger scene did any dancing. This scene was adorable, and the kids did a fantastic job. Audiences love to see children dancing, and of all productions of the Nutcracker in the area, I would expect Joffrey’s to showcase some of Chicago’s most talented children. I was extremely disappointed by the lack of choreography for the young dancers; the poor tree angels ran onstage, stood, and ran off again. I know there are many capable young dancers in the area, as is evident by the Joffrey’s claim that audition numbers for the children’s roles rose by “a double-digit percentage from last year.” The children they cast performed well, and I wish I could have seen them dance much more.
Clara and Drosselmeyer leave the land of this fairytale dream in a hot air balloon for a rather Wizard of Oz-ish but satisfying ending. As a lifelong fan of the Nutcracker, I was at times disappointed but overall content with this traditional favorite. While as a Joffrey production The Nutcracker may not be their #1 ballet, I am glad that its renown brings joy and inspiration to so many families and audiences in Chicago and beyond. I recommend this production for family entertainment, even if ballet aficionados may fixate on small flaws.