If you’ve seen the traditional “Nutcracker” too many times and the magic is wearing off, come see “A Kansas Nutcracker” at the Lawrence Arts Center and it will be restored.
This version, with its cast of more than 100, is more than theater and ballet. As the stage fills with dozens of energetic children and their elders, it’s a force of nature.
It opened Friday night at the arts center, 940 N.H., and continues with shows at 7:30 p.m. today, Dec. 19 and 20, and at 2 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 21.
Choreography throughout the production — and there’s so much! — is the work of Deborah Bettinger, also the show’s artistic director and the originator of this Kansas-themed adaptation, now in its fifth iteration at the arts center. And Ric Averill’s script handily adapts E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story to the Kansas plains, complete with John Brown, border ruffians, Delaware Indians and more.
The opening scene, as in the original, takes place at a Christmas Eve party, but now it’s set in a barn dance. Averill’s capable stage direction is evident as even the youngest players pick up their cues briskly.
But the theater of the first scene quickly yields to the expected ballet, as Godfather Drosselmeyer (consummately played by Ron Willis) bestows his life-size toys: mechanical horse and monkey, a clown, duck and sugar stick. All but the Doll (Helen Hawkins) are played by the professional members of the 940 Dance Company, and all quickly enchanted the audience.
The traditional battle between mice and toy soldiers ensues, and these mice will steal your heart, thanks to Jennifer Glenn’s charming mouse costumes (as well as to much convincingly mouse-like scampering). Fortunately, good triumphs as the soldiers defeat the mouse army, with the help of a well-thrown shoe from Clara, the female lead. She’s played winningly by Sophie Laufer, whose movement on stage is wonderfully fluid throughout.
The first act ends with the graceful ballet of the Snow Queen (Lucy Shopen) and Snow King (R. Vance Baldwin), joined by eight talented dancers representing Snow, plus five young Snow Flakes, all in white tutus. Tchaikovsky’s children’s chorus, here a “Prairie Chorus,” harmonizes sweetly as accompaniment to the dance.
Act Two, set in the Prairie Kingdom of the Nutcracker Prince (Matt Rood), furnishes dancing Cavalry, dancing Grasshoppers (again brilliantly costumed by Glenn), Spanish dancers, a dancing Snake, dancing Delawares, even choreographer Bettinger herself on ten-foot stilts within a giant bustled skirt from which nine schoolchildren emerge.
Danger threatens as the Ruffians return to set fire to the barn, but they’re defeated by a coalition of Act One’s toys and soldiers. That done, a last ballet is elegantly performed — nice lifts, you two — by Juliet Remmers as an older Clara and R. Vance Baldwin as an older Kurt. Finally Clara awakens from the dream she entered as she fell asleep on Christmas Eve, clutching her gift of the nutcracker.
A 13-member orchestra conducted by Jeff Dearinger capably supplies Tchaikovsky’s memorable music. Passages echoing the original instrumentation, with flute, piccolo, bassoon, harp, violin and viola, are just right. The “prairie” effect of mandolins and mandola, coupled with the absence of the original horns and brass, takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s in keeping with this creative recasting of the well-loved Christmas ballet.
— Dean Bevan is a retired Baker University English professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.