Christopher Wheeldon, the Tony Award-winning choreographer behind the Joffrey's $4 million new Nutcracker

After nearly three decades, Robert Joffrey’s Nutcracker, which debuted in 1987, was starting to show its age—its opulent sets and costumes were quite literally falling apart. Artistic director Ashley Wheater admitted as much to the Reader last year; “America’s No. 1 Nut,” as the annual event was once branded, was overdue for an upgrade. The Joffrey scored a coup in hiring Christopher Wheeldon, Tony Award-winning director-choreographer of the 2015 Broadway smash An American in Paris as well as an eminent choreographer of contemporary ballet. What could Wheeldon do with a $4 million budget?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. To begin with, Wheeldon’s Nutcracker, crafted with the help of Brian Selznick (a Caldecott Medal winner for the 2008 children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret), is grounded in a story line that’s much more socially conscious. While Joffrey’s version was set in a posh New York household, this “working-class version” is set in Chicago during the winter before the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition—a savvy home-grown selling point if you happen to be competing with the likes of the Goodman’s A Christmas Carol. Here the heroine, Marie, the daughter of a poor, immigrant single mother, longs for a complete family. A magical visit from a mercurial impresario is more than enough to make that happen.

The Joffrey didn’t stop at Wheeldon. Puppeteer Basil Twist, a 2015 MacArthur fellow, was also brought on to give the production more of a fantasy feel, along with Tony Award-nominated set and costume designer Julian Crouch and Tony Award-winning designers Natasha Katz (lighting) and Ben Pearcy (projections). As upgrades go, the Joffrey’s new Nut is pulling out all the stops.

The Nutcracker 12/10-12/30: Wed-Fri 7 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7 PM, Tue 7 PM; also Wed 12/21-Fri 12/23, 2 PM; Mon 12/26, 2 and 7 PM; and Tue 12/27, 2 PM, Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress, 800-982-2787,, $35-$170.