Parents are under a lot of stress during the holiday season, responsible for creating the magical experience children are promised by popular culture. Parents buy the gifts, decorate the home, and, if hosting, prepare a celebration with all the extra work that entails.
Christopher Wheeldon’s 2016 adaptation of The Nutcracker, staged one last time at the Auditorium before Joffrey Ballet transfers to the Civic Opera House, is a tribute to the people who invest their time, money, and energy to make the holidays special. Young Marie (Amanda Assucena) is still the person thrust into a Christmas fantasy when she’s gifted a nutcracker, but the primary emotional arc follows Marie’s Mother (Victoria Jaiani) as she finds love and transforms into a shimmering manifestation of joy, grace, and optimism.
Featuring a story by Brian Selznick, an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator who specializes in historical fiction, Wheeldon’s The Nutcracker takes place in 1892 Chicago during the construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Marie and her family live in a small shack on the construction site, and they invite other migrant workers and their families for a modest but jubilant Christmas Eve gathering.
Incorporating elements of folk dancing during the party reinforces a sense of community among the workers, and by featuring a child dancer who uses a wheelchair (Larke Johnson, alternating in the role with Emma Lookatch), the choreography creates an atmosphere of inclusion where everyone is encouraged to join the festivities. The Great Impresario of the Fair (Miguel Angel Blanco) drops by to give the adults bags of coins and put on an impressive shadow play of what the World’s Fair will look like upon completion, and the Great Impresario’s gentle flirting with Mother becomes something much more passionate in Marie’s dream of the future.
This dream shows Marie the wonder of the completed World’s Fair, giving the production a striking design rooted in Chicago history while recontextualizing act two’s parade of national dances by placing it in a setting that emphasizes cultural exchange. Julian Crouch’s set and costume design heighten the spectacle of the fair by contrasting it with the drabness of the workers’ reality, and 59 Productions’ elegant projections add an extra layer of magic to the stage with sleek animations and bold graphic designs. Natasha Katz’s lighting brings an ethereal quality to the fair with a vibrant mix of purple and pink, evoking the fair’s warm season without breaking the winter illusion.
That warmth is at the core of Jaiani’s mesmerizing performance as the Queen of the Fair, giving life to the golden statue sculpted by Mother. Jaiani’s musicality fills out each phrase of Tchaikovsky’s iconic score so that every movement feels like it is compelled by music in the moment rather than predetermined by choreography, enriching the character with spontaneity and emotional vitality. This depth carries over to Mother when she returns for the final scene, receiving the happy ending she deserves for dedicating so much of herself to her family. v