(A review by theatre critic Bill Esler at Chicago’s Buzz Center Stage) …“Sugar Hill: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker,” is a revelation, an absolutely delightful spectacle that may open for you a world of riches in music, choreography, and costumes—it did for me.

Just as the 1892 Tchaikovsky “Nutcracker Ballet” is a holiday dream told in dance, so is this new Americanized (and to me, much more accessible) version, having its world premiere at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre through December 30th,2023. It is rooted in a 1960 holiday jazz album by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, whose reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet classic is filtered powerfully through bluesy and swinging jazz, while holding substantial elements of the Russian composer’s original.

The libretto and concept is by Jessica Swan, who has created a work for this century, and the ages—with direction and choreography by Tony nominees Joshua Bergasse and Jade Hale-Christofi. “Sugar Hill” features more than 30 dances in four scenes, each distinctive and substantial, expressing the music while advancing the adventurous story. The Ellington/Strayhorn 1960 “Nutcracker Suite” had just nine numbers, so “Sugar Hill” has infused the work with many other Ellington and Strayhorn pieces, including Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” which receives a show-stopping performance in dance. The whole production is wonderfully backed by a seventeen-piece jazz orchestra, conducted by Harold O’Neal and associate conductor Rob Cookman, both of whom also play piano during the show.

Like the original “Nutcracker Ballet” the story of “Sugar Hill” centers on a poor little rich girl dreaming of adventures beyond the straight-laced confines of her home. But this little girl is Lena Stall, whose wealthy Black parents live on the Upper West Side; and her dreams take her to the 1930s Sugar Hill district in Harlem, where she experiences exciting music and characters. Nutcracker traditionalists will feel at home with the fine balletic performances by some of the greatest dancers, and mice, cats, dogs and the Nutcracker are all there.

Producers David Garfinkle and Dr. Ron Simons intended to preview the show in New York City in November. Instead, Chicago is blessed to enjoy this world premiere at the historic Auditorium, a perfect setting for what I am certain will prove to be a ravishing cultural event of great import. “Sugar Hill” runs through December 30th at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. Go to auditoriumtheatre.org for more information about tickets available for the remaining shows. (Photo: Brenda Braxton as Mother Sugar with her cat butlers).

The Auditorium Theatre in Chicago lost its holiday staple when the Joffrey Ballet moved to the Lyric Opera House in 2021. But that beautiful, gold-trimmed venue in Chicago’s Loop may have a new winner with “Sugar Hill,” a brand-new “Nutcracker” ballet with a glitzy twist. Jazz masters Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn broke barriers with their 1960 interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s 1892 “Nutcracker Suite.” Enter “Sugar Hill,” Tony Award-winning producers David Garfinkle and Ron Simons’ attempt to capture that same genre-defying magic-making by fitting the sweet Ellington / Strayhorn suite over a new libretto from author Jessica Swan.

The original “Nutcracker” ballet is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” And those who know “The Nutcracker” will find clever parallels between “Sugar Hill” and the popular ballet: An imaginative young girl (named Lena Stall, riffing off the Stahlbaum family’s surname in the traditional ballet) gets a special doll at her family’s holiday party, falls asleep and is whisked away to the magical land of her dreams, battling a gaggle of mice and a snowstorm along the way. Swan moves Lena, her nutcracker and an international troupe of fantastical figures from a 19th century German living room to 1930s New York. Rather than a candy-coated Kingdom of the Sweets, Lena’s dreamland is Sugar Hill, the storied Manhattan neighborhood that flourished in the ‘30s — its notable residents including W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Her prince (danced by the fantastic Jinhao Zhang) is a dispirited jazz musician who finds his passion again as a passenger on Lena’s journey. Those who know Ellington and Strayhorn will be whisked away, too. Conductor and pianist Harold O’Neal leads a terrific big band through their “Nutcracker,” supplemented by more than 20 additional selections from the two composers’ catalogs. Rather than relegate them to the orchestra pit, the band gobbles up nearly half the Auditorium Theatre’s stage on a platform behind the dancers — as they should. Lena (danced wonderfully by Alicia Mae Holloway from The Dance Theatre of Harlem) sneaks out of her affluent parents Upper West Side home and “Takes the A Train” to Harlem — thanks to an angelic jazz singer (Jennifer Jade Ledesna) voicing Billy Strayhorn’s most popular tune. Lena finds herself in a jazz club, plunged into an intoxicating world of music and dance at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s here that “Sugar Hill’s” magic gets turned all the way up. Director and choreographer Joshua Bergasse (who won an Emmy for NBC’s “Smash”) recruited additional moves from Jon Boogz, Jade Hale-Christofi and Caleb Teicher. It all comes together in a Savoy-like scene that morphs into a battle with beer-bellied rats resembling some ruffians Lena encountered en route to Harlem, and through a foggy snowstorm on her way to the treetops above Lenox Avenue for some light entertainment from a carnival of dancing animals.

 “Sugar Hill” has so much to admire, as a full Auditorium Theatre audience made clear. (Parts of this stage review were taken from a review of ‘Sugar Hill’ done by Chicago Tribune contributing writer Lauren Warnecke). Photo: Olivia Tang-Mifsud, Ayaka Kamei, Alicia Mae Holloway and Jinhao Zhang in “Sugar Hill: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker” in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre. (Michelle Reid/HANDOUT).

Get ready for a musical journey like never before as Tony Award winning producers David Garfinkle and Ron Simons unveil the World Premiere of “SUGAR HILL: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker.” This extraordinary production, a jazz-steeped reimagining of The Nutcracker, pays homage to the genre-defying collaboration of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The enchanting melodies of Ellington and Strayhorn set the stage for a mesmerizing performance, and it’s all happening at Chicago’s historic Auditorium Theatre, from December 20th through December 30th.

The world renowned newspaper publication, The Chicago Defender, got an exclusive interview with A. Alyce Claerbaut, executive producer of ‘Sugar Hill’ and the niece of Billy Strayhorn. She is also the President of Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc. The Defender talks with Alyce as they delve deeper into the making of this groundbreaking production. Read more by going to: chicagodefender.com/a-alyce-claerbaut-talks-sugar-hill-the-elligton-strayhorn-nutcracker/

It’s December, and the first standings of the month have been announced as of Tuesday, December 5th for the 2023 Broadway World Pittsburgh Awards! Don’t miss out on making sure that your favorite theatres, stars, and shows get the recognition they deserve! Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Something to Live For’ leads in the voting for Best New Play or Musical.

The 2023 Regional Awards honor regional productions, touring shows, and more which had their first performance between October 1, 2022 through September 30, 2023 in Pittsburgh. The local editors set the categories, readers submit their nominees, and the public gets to vote for their favorites! Voting will continue through December 31st, 2023. Winners will be announced in January!

Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc. and the Billy Strayhorn Foundation celebrate November 29th, 2023 as a very special day, the 108th birthday of arranger, composer, lyricist and pianist Billy Strayhorn. Even though he passed in 1967, the Strayhorn legacy continues to grow. His contribution to the worldwide jazz community and his involvement in many other socially relevant issues of his time (the 1940’s till his passing in 1967) resonates even more in this 21st century. Strayhorn’s life as an openly gay male serves as a model for so many looking to find their comfortable space. The visionary musical blueprint he left, along with Duke Ellington, has set the highest standard for composing and arranging for so many in the jazz world. We leave you on this happy heavenly birthday with a favorite phrase of the man known as Swee’ Pea…”Ever Up and Onward”!