The Holiday Tradition of The Nutcracker

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A dancer leaps through the air with the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago backdrop

A note from the author: I wrote most of this review prior to my honorary auntie, Kathy’s passing this week after a long battle with cancer. It is the hardest death that I’ve experienced since my mother-in-law passed away in 2013 — long before she was my mother-in-law. But as my own mother often reminds me, life goes on. And so, I will continue to do the work that I set out to do. Because Kath would expect no less from me.

I was a little girl the first time I saw the Nutcracker. I was dressed in my velvet Christmas dress from the JC Penney Big Book. My Aunt Kathy — Mom’s best friend — picked me up and we took the Metra into the city for adventure. We took a taxi to Marshall Field’s for lunch in The Walnut Room. Then, we proceeded to The Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place to see The Ruth Page Production of The Nutcracker. I was enthralled by the entire spectacle, and the experience was truly a core memory for me. Because of that experience, I have made it a goal to take all of my nieces to see The Nutcracker, so that hopefully, they have wondrous memories of sugar plum fairies and magical nutcracker princes.

I had the opportunity to take my niece, Emma, with me to review The Nutcracker performed by The Joffrey Ballet at the Lyric Opera House. After brunch at The Dearborn we made our way to the matinee opening show, where we watched families with children of all ages fill in the seats of the incredible theater. The Lyric Opera House is one of my favorite Chicago venues. I love the grandiose feel you get when you walk into the lobby.

Dancers performing in front of a Chicago 1893 World's Fair Backdrop
The Nutcracker Zachary Manske Yumi Kanazawa Hyuma Kiyosawa Photo by Katie Miller

I will start by saying that I loved the performance. The music was perfection, as Tchaikovsky is wont to do. The dancing was incredible, as The Joffrey Ballet Company is wont to do. I was blown away by Anabelle de la Nuez, who played Marie [in the traditional performance, Clara] and the heart with which she performed. Amanda Assucena was an absolute vision as Marie’s mother and The Queen of the Fair, and I adored Maxwell Dawe’s Nutcracker.

I’m honestly still on the fence about the reimagining by Christopher Wheeldon. On one hand, I applaud the premise and the reasoning for the change: It was wonderful to see a story about a working class family in Chicago in 1893. On the other hand, I missed the opulence of the classic story’s opening.

Because of the change, it would not be fitting to open to a grand holiday party, and instead we open on two children walking the construction site of the World’s Fair where the encounter a gang of children who have all stolen items. They move into a small family gathering where they decorate a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and are greeted by a surprise guest. The Great Impresario [Godfather] does just as his name implies and impresses everyone with gifts and magic.

Maria’s dream begins when she wakes from her sleeping spot on the floor by the hearth to her brother being kidnapped by The Rat King and she is taken through a dream of a fully opened fair, in which her mother is Queen [Sugar Plum Fairy] and eventually, she falls in love with The Great Impresario. The dream sequence has much of the wonder and magic of the traditional story, and the costumes in much of the story were magnificent. I still missed the Sugar Plum Fairy, if only because I’ve loved her since the first time I saw the ballet.

The Nutcracker The Joffrey Ballet Ensemble in colorful costumes with a black backdrop
This photo does not do these colorful costumes justice. The Nutcracker The Joffrey Ballet Ensemble Photo by Katie Miller

There were a few laugh out loud moments for me, and I felt pretty awkward being the only one cackling, but I rolled with it. Buffalo Bill seemed a little out of place, and yet, I couldn’t help but giggle with every ostentatious step he performed. The dancing walnuts and Mother Nutcracker might just have been my favorite dance of the entire show.

dancers dressed in snapping walnut costumes
I thought it was hilarious, and their facial expressions were on point. The Nutcracker The Joffrey Ballet Ensemble Photo by Katie Miller

My 13-year-old niece said that she loved the performance and that it was really cool (though she did seem mildly bored near the end — teenagers, man). Overall, I enjoyed the performance, and I would definitely see it again (I’ve read other reviews that this was a one and done version).

The Joffrey Ballet has been performing The Nutcracker in Chicago since 1996 — and this reimagined classic since 2016. The Joffrey Ballet’s critically-acclaimed reimagined classic, The Nutcracker by Tony Award®-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon returns to celebrate the magic of the holiday season. Wheeldon’s American tale relocates Marie and her immigrant family to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where Marie embarks on a whirlwind adventure with the Nutcracker Prince.

A ballet in two acts set to Tchaikovsky’s classic score, The Nutcracker features an award-winning creative team, including Tony Award®-nominated set and costume designerJulian Crouch, Caldecott Medal Award-winning author Brian Selznick, Obie and Drama Desk award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist, Tony Award®-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz and Tony Award®-winning projection designer Ben Pearcy/59 Productions.

The Nutcracker runs through December 27 at the Lyric Opera House. Purchase tickets on the Joffrey Ballet website.

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2 Responses

  1. What a great commentary on the ballet. I’m so sorry for your loss, and I hope that seeing the ballet helped heal your heart, if only a little bit. I was fortunate to grow up with a mother who took us to see The Nutcracker when we were young. And later, when my cousin David danced in the Hartford, CT ballet company, we saw him perform it a number of times. It was always a treat looking for him because his role was never the same twice. Being 6’4″, he played the Grandmother one year with a massive skirt hiding several children who eventually came out dancing. And another year he was a huge rat. From your description, it sounds like I’d rather see the more traditional version of the ballet too.

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