Credit: Cheryl Mann

The Nutcracker—the 1892 ballet based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, set to a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and originally credited to choreographer Marius Petipa—has always had a fantastically thin plot. A young girl, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, rides the magic coattails of a mysterious godfather to the Land of Sweets, where the child who already has everything is given still more. The stakes have rarely been so low for a character or an audience.

That said, newer versions have strayed from such cushy conventionalism, often for the better. Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut, set in the madcap 70s, is one example; another is Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!, its colorful cast evoking the mind-bending milieu of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In both cases, it seems clear, the challenge lay in tweaking the setting and the story without compromising the show’s famous holiday magic. Do something truly audacious and you risk alienating ticket buyers who have come to think of the classic Nutcracker as an annual holiday tradition, thus something to see (and pay for) every year.

The Joffrey Ballet’s new Nutcracker, a $4 million undertaking choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and now receiving its world premiere at the Auditorium Theatre, faced a similar set of challenges—not least of which was the status of Robert Joffrey’s beloved version after 28 years on the bill.

So how does one trump tradition?

In part by making it at least a bit more real. Set during the winter prior to the 1893 World’s Fair, the Joffrey’s new Nutcracker is a tale emboldened by industry and class consciousness. Its heroine, Marie (given a spirited performance by Amanda Assucena), is the daughter of a poor, working-class single mother, a sculptor and Polish immigrant. In place of the Land of Sweets is the sprawling attraction coming into form as the World’s Columbian Exposition (rendered well by set designer Julian Crouch with help from projections by Ben Pearcy), contextualized for the audience by graphics of old newspaper clippings with headlining draws like “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” and “Venetian Waterways.” The stakes somehow feel real for Marie and whoever else happens to stumble into her world.

Yet the magic remains. At the party scene in the first act—now a Christmas Eve potluck held at Marie’s home, a shack on the fairgrounds—neighbors and fellow laborers dance, cheer, and feast. It’s a magical celebration of unity in itself.

Credit: Cheryl Mann

And with a new setting come exquisite, expressive new takes on classic ballet variations: The “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” is now the domain of Columbia, queen of the fair; “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,” set to the Russian trepak that’s among the most familiar pieces of Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous score, is different and daring. The sensual, reenvisioned “Arabian Dance” is a knockout, while “Mother Nutcracker,” a hilarious bit pitting dancing chestnuts against big-toothed nutcrackers, is comedic fun. Expertly constructed against the silhouette of a giant Ferris wheel, the “Waltz of the Flowers,” now the “Fair Visitors,” is still exacted with the graceful, waltzlike splendor of old. The grand pas de deux between Miguel Angel Blanco’s charming Impresario (seemingly modeled on Daniel Burnham) and Victoria Jaiani’s regal Fair Queen is the proverbial cherry on top.

This ambitious new production strikes such a magnificent balance between significance and seasonal story that it almost—with no disrespect to Joffrey’s version intended—seems a shame it didn’t happen sooner. v