“Nutcracker” a Kansas treasure

Kansas history and classic ballet meet to tell a unique holiday tale at the Lawrence Arts Center.

“A Kansas Nutcracker” marries the story of Clara (Estrella Frankenfeld) and her nutcracker prince from the famous Tchaikovsky ballet with those of Kansas’ first governor, Charles Robinson (Jason Van Nice), and its first senator, James Lane (David Sturm).

Set on Christmas Eve 1861, the show begins at a barn in Lawrence at the home of the fictional Godfather Drosselmeier (Ric Averill), a toymaker, whose skill borders on the magical. He’s invited Robinson, Lane, and a host of other guests — some historical, some fictional — to a grand party to celebrate the holiday.

Politics dominate the conversation as Robinson and wife Sarah (Lauren Krause) cast Lane as an opportunist and a closet bigot. He’s captured several escaped slaves and is holding them as “contraband” — a practice legal at the time but frowned on by the Free State abolitionists that populated Lawrence. The Robinsons pressure Lane unsuccessfully to liberate his slaves and then team up with Drosselmeier to help them escape.

In between are presentations of political causes popular in Kansas at the time — abolition, women’s suffrage and temperance. Evidently, no one ever told Drosselmeier and his guests you don’t discuss politics or religion in a party setting.

At the center of the drama is Drosselmeier’s goddaughter Clara, who becomes interested in her godfather’s handsome nephew Kurt (Blair Bracciano).

Despite taking up most of the first act, the play serves as a kind of prologue for the action of the ballet. After her nutcracker is broken by her younger brother during an erratic reenactment of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Clara falls asleep and dreams of the strange vistas of Kansas and of the escape of Lane’s slaves.

At this point, the show becomes truly delightful. The familiar Tchaikovsky dances are reinterpreted to present an entirely new landscape — the “Spanish Dance” features prairie crickets; the “Russian Dance” is performed by U.S. Cavalry soldiers. Characters from the play re-emerge in Clara’s dream — Kurt becomes the Nutcracker Prince; Lane is the Mouse King.

The script, written by Averill, is an update of his original 2002 version and is much stronger than previous editions. He gives us a good villain in the opportunistic Lane. Sturm is pompous in the role, clearly having fun strutting around the stage.

Frankenfeld and Bracciano have nice chemistry as the young, would-be couple, and Saskia Ferrara gives a delightful turn as boy-crazy Jeanette, who attempts and fails to win Kurt for herself.

But the show is strongest when the action gives way to the dancing. Deb Bettinger’s choreography is entrancing. She effortlessly mixes professional ballerinas with children performing onstage for the first time. She finds the right mix between beautiful and cute.

Several of the dances were particularly engaging. Clarate Heckler creates one of the highlights of the first act as a wind-up ballerina doll. She’s led on stage, and then Drosselmeier cranks on a giant turnkey to get her going. Heckler moves precisely from position to position with each turn, until she is at last set free to flit around the stage, twirling gracefully while blowing kisses mechanically.

Heckler also shines in the second act, performing a solo ballet with complete composure while young children in cricket costumes hop all around her.

Shelby Steichen is exquisite as the Snow Queen, and Matthew Rodriguez (who doubles as contraband slave John Brooks) is perfect as her Snow King. Supported by a fine cast of adult ballerinas, little girls as snowflakes and a prairie chorus, they bring the first act to a magnificent end.

Adriana Gramly mesmerizes as a snake that poisons the Nutcracker Prince at Wilson’s Creek. Dancing with a long swath of silk to simulate the snake’s undulating body, Gramly weaves her way across stage, stepping over and through the silk and then wrapping and unwrapping herself in it in entrancing fashion.

Steffani Day’s costumes, based on original designs by Jennifer Glenn, are gorgeous. The period pieces are spot-on, perfectly evoking the dress and imagery of Kansas’ first year of statehood. The fantasy costumes from Clara’s dream world are exotic, imaginative and beautiful.

The set is sparse, consisting mainly of drops to provide background to the acting and dancing. But they are magnificently painted. In particular, the prairie landscape is the picture of the Kansas countryside and is well lit by Art Kent.

In all, “A Kansas Nutcracker” charms on nearly every level. A treasury of dance and local history, it takes familiar stories and re-imagines them in invigorating new ways.


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