Over the years there have been countless interpretations of “Frankenstein,” Mary Shelley’s extraordinary 1818 Gothic novel (subtitled “The Modern Prometheus,” for the Greek god of fire). But the Joffrey Ballet’s production of the story that opened Thursday evening on the stage of the Lyric Opera House — the work of the masterful British choreographer Liam Scarlett, set to a richly dramatic original score by Lowell Liebermann — might very well be its most stunning interpretation yet.
Brilliantly danced by the Joffrey company (which has quite a few fine new dancers on its roster), backed by the impeccable playing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra ideally conducted by Scott Speck, and brought to life with stunning scenic and costume design by John Mcfarlane, this is a seamless masterwork of dance and music. And it is fully enhanced by the exceptional dramatic skills of the Joffrey dancers — one of the company’s most notable qualities.
“Frankenstein” is a remarkable production on every level. It is dance theater at its very finest. And the tragic, haunting and altogether ghoulish story of Frankenstein — the brilliant young medical student who is obsessed and ultimately destroyed by his determination to make a human creation out of the body parts of an old corpse — is not simply chilling and ghoulish. In fact, at this moment in history, Shelley’s story also brings to mind the contemporary obsession with artificial intelligence and its potential dangers.
The ballet opens in the posh 18th century Geneva home of the Frankenstein family where Victor Frankenstein (the intensely focused José Pablo Castro Cuevas) is about to head off to university and follow in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. He will be leaving behind Elizabeth Lavenza (played by Amanda Assucena, a dancer whose exquisite technique is paired with exceptional dramatic skill), who was adopted into the family years earlier. Along the way she has forged a loving relationship with Victor, a somewhat temperamental young man who, at the moment, is grieving for his mother who died suddenly in the process of giving birth to another son, William (played with exceptional skill by Sheppard Littrell, a very young and notably gifted dancer/actor from the Joffrey Academy’s pre-professional program).
At the university Victor meets and becomes friends with a kind-hearted fellow student, Henry Clerval (ideally played by Xavier Núñez). They are seen in the classroom of their professor who introduces them to strange notions about possibly being able to create life from parts of a corpse. The notion quickly becomes an obsession for Victor and drives him to create the being who will become known as the Creature (performed to chilling and at times heartbreaking effect by Jonathan Dole, who is dressed in a flesh-tone costume that gives the impression of nudity and multiple bloody scars).
Totally alienated from life, the Creature goes into hiding, cloaked in Victor’s black coat. But he will soon find his way to Victor’s Geneva home where he learns what was behind his creation. And he is driven to seek revenge at a birthday party for William whom he murders, leaving a tell-tale locket of Frankenstein’s mother on the body of William’s nanny, Justine (Jeraldine Mendoza, yet another fine dancer/actress), who is subsequently hanged.
In the last of the ballet’s three acts, Victor and Elizabeth are married and walk down a grand winding staircase to a celebratory ball. And after the Creature murders both Henry and Elizabeth, Victor is driven to suicide, and the Creature goes down in flames. So much for Victor’s arrogant twisting of nature and the warped humanoid he was so driven to create.
During the course of the production (ideally staged by Kristen McGarrity, Laura Morera, Lauren Strongin and Joe Walsh), the curtain for each act displays a giant and decidedly eerie portrait of the ever-changing Creature’s skull, with lighting design by David Finn and projection design by Finn Ross. The message, as is made clear throughout both Shelley’s story and this remarkable dance version of her work, is worth noting: Do not mess with Mother Nature, and if you do, prepare to face the devastating consequences.
The Joffrey Ballet’s production of “Frankenstein” runs through Oct. 22 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. For tickets, visit joffrey.org or phone (312) 386-8905. The running time is about two hours and 45 minutes with two 20-minute intermissions, and you will be riveted throughout.
And one final (and tragic) note: The late choreographer Liam Scarlett was a product of Britain’s Royal Ballet. His “Frankenstein” ballet had its world premiere by the Royal Ballet in 2016, but his career was subsequently and devastatingly “canceled” by the Royal Danish Ballet and other companies after charges of what was said to be sexual misconduct. In 2021, at the age of 35, he died of what is widely considered to have been suicide. He left behind nearly 30 ballets performed by many major ballet companies. The story of Scarlett’s tragic death can be found on the internet. The creative magic of his work is now to be found on the Lyric Opera stage.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic