BY BILL BROWNLEE, The Star
The production of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by the Owen/Cox Dance Group and the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City is less a heartwarming tale of Christmas than a lusty toy story. A few dozen occasionally fidgety children were among the audience of about 350 at the ensembles’ unconventional translation of the traditional seasonal ballet on Sunday afternoon at Polsky Theatre of the Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College.
Most adults in the audience were unflaggingly stimulated by the somewhat bawdy and consistently raucous interpretation of the two-act ballet loosely based on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s libretto. In the midst of its 10th season, the Owen/Cox Dance Group is one of the region’s leading contemporary dance troupes. The People’s Liberation Big Band is a collective of more than 15 forward-thinking musicians. Sunday’s show was the second and closing performance of their rendering of “The Nutcracker” in 2016.
The madcap tone was established immediately as bandleader Brad Cox wielded a baton like a sword until the chaotic blare of the group coalesced into booming swing in the style of Charles Mingus. Soon after Jeff Harshbarger’s compelling narration explained that a family was observing Christmas Eve, a pair of graceful celebrants left the stage to pursue their suggestively amorous inclinations in private.
Jennifer Owen’s imaginative choreography allowed Laura Hunt’s portrayal of Marie to evolve from an innocent child into a young adult with an unlikely attraction to the Nutcracker. Darwin Black performed the latter role with slapstick agility and heroic athleticism. As the King of Mice, the experimental saxophonist Mark Southerland made a dramatic entrance from the back of the theater before battling with the Nutcracker. Dancers from the Paseo Academy of the Fine and Performing Arts — young performers who displayed a vigorous enthusiasm that could set a worthy example for experienced professionals — weaved around Southerland to create a menacing battalion of rodents.
The orchestra’s arrangements differed from “The Nutcracker” variations associated with jazz ensembles led by Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller. They included a sultry selection that accompanied a playfully erotic burlesque dance, a provocative serenade in the vein of Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” that set the mood for steamy gamboling and a progressive-rock interlude during which the Paseo Academy students bounced like teenyboppers. Marie once covered her ears in pained horror as the orchestra underscored a frightening scene with a dissonant passage. Adventurous theatergoers, however, savored every moment of the wondrous presentation.
Bill Brownlee: @happyinbag