Lee Hartman, KCMetropolis.org
Oh Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky, thank you for writing the basis for the Owen/Cox and People's Liberation Big Band to work their deranged magic upon.
A sell-out crowd at the City Stage Theater on Friday night was treated to an absolute feast for the ears and eyes with The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The Owen/Cox Dance Group and the People's Liberation Big Band of Kansas City with guest Mark Southerland proudly let their freak flags fly. Peggy Noland and Peregrine Honig's striking costume design-reminiscent of Wimmer-Ferguson high-contrast baby toys- brought whimsy, sex appeal, and menace to the production.
The music by Southerland, Jeffrey Ruckman, and Brad Cox with arrangements by Cox, Pat Conway, Jeff Harshbarger, and Forest Stewart was a demented plethora of styles based on Tchaikovsky's holiday favorite The Nutcracker. There was plenty to appease those familiar with Tchaikovsky's ballet, and music and the story was taken further by adding more of E.T.A. Hoffmann's original story, namely the story-within-a-story "Tale of the Hard Nut." Jennifer Owen's choreography was also referential to the traditional structure of solo numbers, pas de deux, and ensemble pieces with shades of Isadora Duncan and hip hop.
Lauren Fitzpatrick took the role of 'Marie' from a young girl prone to spats with her brother 'Fritz' (danced with wonderful frustration by Owen) to a young woman on the verge of adulthood. The transformation was readily apparent as her dancing became more and more refined as the piece progressed.
'The Nutcracker' was danced by the insanely bendy Randolf Ward; his turns were performed with dazzling speed and crispness.
Jennifer Owen channeled her inner sex kitten and with the help of Peregrine Honig's Lady-Gaga-in-Barbie-pink costume took the wholesome 'Sugar Plum Fairy' in a completely different direction to naughty ballerina/stripper.
Gavin Stewart and Laura Jones were paired together throughout the entire production. Their chemistry was palpable as the uptight 50s-era Ward and June Cleaver-esque father and mother to the sultry, show-stopping Arabesque pas de deux.
The sarcastic, modernized narration was performed with sardonic wit by Jeffrey Ruckman, while Cox narrated the "Tale of the Hard Nut" as 'Drosselmeier.'
Musically the most successful portions were in the second act. The Chinese dance was recontextualized as an Afro-Cuban romp and the Trepak became a vodka-infused piece for solo jublag (a Gamelan instrument). The Dance of the Mirlitons was another standout. Danced by students from the Paseo Academy it was one of the longer set pieces. The music ranged from "Woodchopper's Ball" Glenn Miller swing to street hip hop. The crowd was clearly engaged in this number and the young dancers handled it magnificently.
Even with such an enjoyable production I have three small quibbles. I found the solo choreography somewhat lacking. The ensemble numbers were complexly layered and Jennifer Owen clearly excels in that arena, yet I did not find enough variety of motion within each of the solo works. In the more gritty numbers I felt the dancers were not fully completing all their moves and some body rolls should have been dirtier. Musically, especially in the first act, I found the score too heavily reliant on the aleatoric, "go crazy" instructions. But again, small quibbles for an otherwise thoroughly engaging performance.
Oh Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky, thank you for writing the basis for Owen/Cox and PLBB to work their deranged magic upon.