Laura Vernaci, KCMetropolis.org
It was fun to say goodbye to the traditional and expected concepts for a night, and embrace this classic tale with a delightful and touching twist.
After seeing The Nutcracker & the Mouse King, presented by the Owen/Cox Dance Group Friday night to a sold out house at the H&R Block City Stage Theater, the visions in my head will be of slightly different characters. Rather than sugar plums and the accustomed Nutcracker, I might instead dream of a hot pink burlesque Sugar Plum, danced by the ever-so-amusing Jennifer Owen. Or Mark Southerland’s version of the seven-horned Mouse King, aptly named for his bounty of instruments, and not to be confused with protruding head growths. It was fun to say goodbye to the traditional and expected concepts for a night, and embrace this classic tale with a delightful and touching twist.
Setting the storybook mood for the evening were narrators Jeffrey Ruckman and Brad Cox. As the cast of dancers dashed onto the smallish stage, Ruckman transported the audience into a land of bubble gum colors and priceless one-liners. A bit of humor is just what E.T.A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker needed. His portrayal, compared to the more commonly known Dumas version, explores the Nutcracker’s background and the full-circle journey of Marie and her prince.
Betty Kondo danced the role of Marie, starting out as an innocent teenager and slowly evolving into a young woman in love. Her skilled technique, in particular, stood out as did her precise execution. Randolph Ward, as the tall, lanky and fluid Nutcracker, nicely complemented Kondo. The highlight of the first act was Cox’s retelling of “The Story of the Hard Nut.” Brittany Duskin perfectly portrayed the cursed princess who was saved by Ward, only to find himself turned into a grotesque, awkward Nutcracker. But Godfather Drosselmeier, embodied by the spirited Christopher Barksdale, was determined to break the spell by hatching a plan of making Marie fall in love with the Nutcracker.
Act Two began with the quintessential, tongue-in-cheek description as Marie and her Nut were greeted with cultural-themed dances based on harsh, enduring stereotypes. Duskin danced Chinese with large, energetic movement while Latra Wilson gave a slinky Spanish performance. Marie’s parents, played by Gavin Stewart and Laura Jones, reappeared in sexy lingerie as the Arabian couple, throwing themselves at one another in a fit of passion.
Owen’s vaudeville version of “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” was thoroughly entertaining as she playfully flirted with the audience highlighted by the exaggerated musical accents. Kondo and Ward’s Pas de Deuxstarted off a little like Dirty Dancing, but progressed into a beautiful, intimate dance that stayed particularly true to its classical counterpart. Similarly, Tchaikovsky’s original score was most evident in this section, though slightly altered to give the feel of an early ‘90s love song, like Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You.
Though crammed into a small space upstage of the dancers, The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City radiated huge sounds covering a wide range of musical genres. Cox and the gang kept it interesting, constantly changing between Tchaikovsky, familiar Christmas carols, and compositions of their own. The eclectic selection of everything from jazz to rock put a smile on the audience’s faces and even forced bass player Jeff Harshbarger to his feet.
The band and dance ensemble formed a great pair for this alternative, inventive rendition of a classic holiday tale. Peggy Noland’s costumes added color and depth and Owen’s choreography was exciting and quirky, making the performance a joy for everyone in attendance.