Review: 'Kansas Nutcracker' a fitting local tradition

Sunday, December 12, 2004

"A Kansas Nutcracker" is one of those events that can put you in awe of Lawrence's artistic resources.

Start with a cast seemingly of thousands. Add the writers, musicians, set designers, costume-makers and choreographers who were clever enough to recast "The Nutcracker" as a tale of Lawrence's "Free State" days in the 1850s, and you begin to sense the enormity of effort.

"This is a night of magic!" one character exclaims throughout the evening.

Perhaps. But the magic is born of hard work and vision.

The first act is more play than ballet, as the Stahlbaum family celebrates the Christmas of 1854 with dozens of guests -- some for slavery, others (such as the notorious John Brown) against. The family is determined to enjoy Christmas without the interference of politics.

"No abolitionism," declares Dr. Stahlbaum, portrayed by David Springe. "No temperance. No suffrage."

Drosselmeier (Ron Willis) godfather to the Stahlbaum children, manages to keep the political arguments at bay when he presents his gifts: life-sized dolls, ducks, clowns and mechanical monkeys.

To Clara Stahlbaum (Sara Cortese) he presents a mysterious nutcracker, which has the appearance of a toy soldier. The gift is soon broken during rough play with the other children. Clara, heartbroken, falls asleep.

In her dreamworld, she's greeted by the nutcracker -- who looks exactly like Drosselmeier's nephew, Kurt. They battle rats and ruffians, before taking a magical journey among Kansas' blizzards, flowers, grasshoppers and other creatures.

And in her dream, Clara and Kurt are able to fend off pro-slavery ruffians who try to burn down her family's barn. She wakes and the nutcracker is restored; the barn, too, is saved.

The dozens of dancers -- of all ages -- in "Kansas Nutcracker" must be congratulated, but special notice goes to Michael Ingle and Ellie Goudie-Averill who transfixed the audience as the Snow King and Queen. The dozens of children who danced as mice, grasshoppers and other prairie critters brought smiles to many faces in the audience.

The music, too, is delightful. Jeff Dearinger's arrangement of familiar tunes for a mandolin orchestra gives Peter Tchaikovsky's music an American, even Coplandesque feel.

This is the third year for "A Kansas Nutcracker" at the Lawrence Arts Center, which was conceived and choreographed by Deborah Bettinger. It's a fine holiday tradition for the city it honors.

The ballet will be presented again at 2 p.m. today and Dec. 19, as well as 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17-18. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors.