'A Kansas Nutcracker' ready for stage

Clara and her visions reawaken for second year of prairie-tinged performance

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, creatures were stirring, even grasshoppers and a mouse.

Visions of Delaware Indians, abolitionists and border ruffians will be dancing through the prairie on Thursday when the Lawrence Arts Center opens "A Kansas Nutcracker" to celebrate the holiday season.

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Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo

"A Kansas Nutcracker" actors Sara Bezek, right, as Clara and Tommy Cottin as the Nutcracker Prince are among those who will perform the holiday piece at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H. The show will run Dec. 11-14 and 18-21.

Local playwright Ric Averill retells the first act of the classic holiday story on the plains of Bleeding Kansas.

"Everything that happens in the first act and all the things that happen in the party scene reflects the politics in Kansas in the pre-Civil War days," Averill says. "The dances are dreams of Kansas."

Upon urging from show choreographer Deb Bettinger, Averill originally penned the adaptation of Tchaikovsky's beloved holiday ballet in 1988. Bettinger and Averill found many aspects of the original music and story that lent themselves to a prairie retelling.

"Tchaikovsky took a ton of liberties when he adapted the original story for ballet," Averill says. "It is a very complex story, and Tchaikovsky sort of made it a sweet story. We put some of the conflict back in."

The performance opens with a large party scene. True to Kansas fashion, Averill's version moves the celebration to a barn, where the large cast, including Averill as a Missouri ruffian, incorporate elements of dance typical to the time period with ballet.

"The dances are based on dances people did at the time," Bettinger says. "When people gathered during that time, dancing was a form of entertainment, so the dance was different."

When the young Clara falls asleep, her dreams are dominated by images of the prairie and the night's festivities. Ruffians, townspeople, mice, grasshoppers and other prairie inhabitants prance through her head as she sleeps.

Despite the obvious changes to make it more applicable to the prairie, the original music easily transferred to a Wheat State setting. Jeff Dearinger, director of the Uptown Mandolin Quartet, maestros the 11-piece mandolin orchestra providing the accompaniment.

"The music has been rearranged for a mandolin orchestra," Bettinger says. "It will sound more like the music you would hear on the plains. It is very lovely and enhances the show."

The cast of approximately 100 has been rehearsing for this year's performance since the end of October. Members of the Prairie Wind Dancers and the Seem-To-Be Players combine with students and community members to orchestrate the action.

"We have the combination of community members and students with professionals," Averill says. "All the arts combine, and that makes it very exciting."

This is the second year "A Kansas Nutcracker" has been performed. Averill says he plans to stage the show again next year when Lawrence celebrates its sesquicentennial. Beyond that, he isn't sure that it will become a holiday tradition. Cast members, however, are excited about returning to the dance/theater combination.

"Some of the dancers and actors are already asking us, 'If we don't do the 'Nutcracker' again in the future, is there some other productions we could do that would be a combination of theater and dance,'" Averill says. "It is just a very wonderful project."

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