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  • Angela Allyn

Epic Frankenstein fills the Joffrey Stage

Every once in a while you encounter a work of art that changes the game. From the moment you enter the Lyric Opera House in Chicago to experience the Joffrey Ballet’s Frankenstein and take your seats in front of an enormous painting of a skull that fills the proscenium, you recognize that the scale for story ballet has changed. Choreographer Liam Scarlett’s dark vision for this not-suitable-for-young-and-sensitive viewers version of Mary Shelley’s iconic and tragic tale of unintended consequences is operatic. Spoiler:Everyone ends up dead! And many of the ends evoked gasps in the audience. You know you are in for something when the opening projections by Finn Ross alone are worth the price of admission and not to be missed– combined with John McFarlane’s scenic design, a visually stunning and stormy world comes into being. Lowell Liebermann’s score is an ongoing foreboding and foretelling danse macabre that, married to John McFarlane’s delicious costumes, makes the entire evening the perfect All Hallow’s Eve entertainment filled with a kind of zombie and soon to be ghosts.

The plot is not quite all Shelley– here those who mess with nature unleash destruction and death at every turn, but it is perhaps a cautionary tale for an era when science thinks it can conquer the natural order.

And then we have the dancing, which is why of course we are here! The cast when I saw the show paired Alberto Velasquez as Victor with Hyuma Kiyosawa as The Creature, triangulated with the ethereal Victoria Jaiani as Elizabeth Lavanza. Velasquez portrayed the harrowed and exhausted hero having grave doubts about his choices. With Kiyosawa, having an Asian Creature in a heavily white cast gave the creature an added otherness that was intriguing, though the Creature role is demanding and creepy enough for anyone. The makeup designer is uncredited which is sad because along with the naked but not naked costume, it is the scars and the way the Creature imitates movement that make him so deeply disturbing. Kiyosawa is an exceptional technician and gives the role everything he’s got so you cannot take your eyes off him even when he attempts to blend into the crowd. Jaiani shows range from innocent and in love to concerned to terrified– her acting is always as good as her dancing.

Other stand out performances: the sweet and doomed Justine the Nanny danced by Anais Bueno, the loveable Henry Clerval danced by Zachary Manske and the charming young William Frankenstein danced by pre professional Sheppard Littrell.

An interesting side bar here: this work is not original to the Joffrey. It was a collaborative production (commission) between the Royal Ballet and the San Francisco ballet that premiered in 2016. Scarlett was somewhat controversial and died in 2021. I wonder if we are going to see increased acquisitions of existing works as opposed to commissioning new works in our brave new world of altered arts business models...... stay tuned! For now I feel like the music theatre geek who finally gets to see the touring production of the Tony Award winner. This work needs a long life even if its creator did not get one.

Please, as we move into this dark season, go see this thrilling work of living (and not yet dead) art. It is long for a ballet– nearly three hours but you really don’t want it to end because 1) you can tell what is going to happen and it won’t be happy and 2) the dancing is magnificent.

Joffrey Ballet’s Frankenstein is playing through this weekend (Sunday October 22, 2023) at the Civic Opera House 20 N Wacker Drive, and only limited tickets remain here:

But seriously drop what you are doing and see this show.

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