“SUGAR HILL: THE ELLINGTON/STRAYHORN NUTCRACKER,” IS A REVELATION, AN ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTFUL SPECTACLE

(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).