If the “Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by the Owen/Cox Dance Group and the People’s Liberation Big Band were simply a twisted take on the classic ballet, I doubt there’d be much to savor.
But this production has it all — great jazz reworkings of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky melodies (a delight to listen to), top-notch dancers (Christopher Barksdale makes a splendid and scary Drosselmeier), a suspenseful story and fanciful costumes and designs by Peregrine Honig, Peggy Noland and Mark Southerland, which make the stage at Union Station pop with color and life.
The performance opens with an outburst by the big band, 18 musicians who blare their horns and beat on drums from their place behind the stage. Band leader Brad Cox also provides bits of witty narration along the way with comments such as “Truth be told, he was a very strange man,” speaking of Drosselmeier, and later, after the Nutcracker is broken: “With another Christmas Eve ruined entirely,” it is time for bed.
In this version, dancer Betty Kondo plays Marie, a young girl who is given a Nutcracker by her godfather Drosselmeier. Jennifer Owen plays the naughty brother, Fritz, who breaks the Nutcracker. He’s not a bad kid, the narrator says, just a boy who’s had too much sugar.
Soon Marie is asleep and the battle begins. The mice dancers follow the trumpet-blowing Mouse King (Southerland) onto the stage. Their silver, metal-like costumes jingle as they dance, and Marie eventually provides her Nutcracker with a sword to slay the Mouse King. After the victory, there’s some great solo dancing by Barksdale.
The second act, similar to the classic ballet version, shows off the dancers — thanks to Owen’s wonderful choreography. Once again, Cox gets the crowd laughing as he introduces Act II as a time for dances that are “culturally insensitive” and based on old stereotypes. The Chinese dance is an inspired display of leaps and turns, and the music, arranged by globe-trotting percussionist Patrick Alonzo Conway, was powerful and mysterious.
The Arabian dance is especially tantalizing with the male and female dancers playing a seductive pair. He wears purple silk pants, and she’s in a naughty nightie. Owen wears a pink wig in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where she’s anything but sweet in her raunchy rendition. Like the other performers, she’s not just dancing, she’s acting for the audience and loving it. And Latra Wilson wows the crowd with her Spanish Doll dance.
By far my favorite segment is the pas de deux. Here we see what we’ve been waiting for — Marie dancing with her Nutcracker. There’s a beautiful mix here of traditional ballet and contemporary dance, and by this time you’re completely sucked into the story. The music is at its best here, too, as the classic piece is turns into a sort of doo-wop slow dance that builds to a ferocious, drumming crescendo.
In just its second year (last year’s productions were sellouts), the Owen/Cox production succeeds because each element is top-notch, from the dancers to the music to the bright, polka-dot costumes. It seems poised to become a classic in its own way as the production’s fans spread the word.