Review: ‘Sugar Hill: The Ellington / Strayhorn Nutcracker’ at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre is a joyful, jazzy reinvention…

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).