Review: “A Kansas Nutcracker” highlights Lawrence history, talent
Making alterations to a classic is a dicey business and one many artists relish. Ric Averill’s “A Kansas Nutcracker”, which adapts the beloved Tchaikovsky ballet to early Kansas history, is hit and miss but when it succeeds, it’s fine family holiday fare.
The show is set at Christmas 1861. The Civil War is raging and we find ourselves at a party at the home of the Stahlbaums, where practically every famous Kansan of the time period is in attendance – Governor Charles Robinson (Jason Van Nice), Senator James Lane (David Sturm), Hugh Cameron (Ric Averill) and Rev. Cordley (Hanan Misko) to name a few. As the curtain rises, the fictional Clara (Natalie Adams-Menendez) – the subject of the famous ballet – is writing to her father Dr. Stahlbaum (Larry Mitchell), who is in Washington setting up hospitals. Her godfather Drosselmeier (Jerry Mitchell) is a co-host of the party, and it is he who will give her the titular nutcracker as a Christmas gift. He also presents his handsome nephew Kurt (Blair Bracciano) as the newest recruit for the Union army. Clara is immediately attracted to him.
The action of the play centers around an intemperate debate between Lane and practically every other party guest on the rights of contraband slaves Lane captured at the Battle of Osceola. The family of slaves, headed by John Speer (Larry Nigh), is present at the party as guests of the Stahlbaums, much to Lane’s chagrin. He wants to keep them as property, even though Kansas is a free state. Drosselmeier, Mrs. Stahlbaum (Trish Neuteboom), and the Robinsons conspire to spirit them away north to Nebraska.
Meanwhile, Drosselmeier – one part abolitionist, one part toymaker and one part magician – entertains the guests, many of whom are children, with his wind-up toys that dance to the early selections in the Tchaikovsky ballet. The whole thing comes to a head when, just as in the original story, Clara’s nutcracker is broken by her younger brother. That sets up her dream wherein Kurt becomes the Nutcracker Prince and leads the toy soldiers in battle over mice and their fearsome King (Averill).
The story is a little contrived. It’s difficult to believe all these people would be at the same party on Christmas Eve, and it feels a little like a forced lesson in early Lawrence history. But it’s easy enough to suspend one’s disbelief and accept the conceit. Some of the performances are quite entertaining.
In particular, Jerry Mitchell is quite good as the melodramatic Drosselmeier. He plays the character over the top with exactly the right amount of panache, and his sleight of hand – from flowers up his sleeve to conjuring fireballs – adds a lot of charm.
Neuteboom gives a polished performance as Mrs. Stahlbaum that is often welcome when she defuses the play’s many arguments. Adams-Menendez is charming as Clara, breezing easily between love for her godfather, attraction to Kurt and annoyance at her siblings. Many of the younger children are appropriately cute in their small roles, particularly the groups that recite speeches for the three major socio-political movements of the time – abolition, suffrage and temperance.
A grant from the Douglas County Heritage Fund enabled the Lawrence Arts Center to significantly upgrade the period costumes for the show, and the results are outstanding. Steffani Day’s costuming during the pre-ballet story is spectacular.
But “A Kansas Nutcracker” really succeeds when it transforms from a play to a ballet. Bracciano and Adams-Menendez are as charming a young couple dancing as they are speaking, and they’re a delight to watch before the mice arrive to break up the party.
After the Mouse King’s defeat, Clara takes a dreamlike tour of Kansas, where the classic numbers are adapted to a Kansas setting – crickets, ravens, healing herbs, Kansas wildflowers and barnyard animals replace the traditional fare – and the Speers attempt to escape via the Underground Railroad. Young children as crickets and chickens and pigs and cows are quite cute. The flowers dance divinely to the “Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairies”.
But the highlight of the ballet is the Arts Center’s new dance program director Hanan Misko. He holds a BFA from Julliard, and it shows. Misko dances the parts of the Snow King and an older Kurt, and he’s absolutely exquisite, moving with a grace that demands attention. Paired with Snow Queen Clarate Heckler and Older Clara Adriana Gramly, he offers both women a strong partner to enhance their dances while delivering a commanding presence of his own.
A subtle aspect of “A Kansas Nutcracker” that’s easy to overlook is the music itself. Tchaikovsky composed his ballet for a large, Romantic orchestra. Jeff Dearinger transposes it down for the 12-piece Free State Liberation Orchestra, and the results are outstanding. With no horns at his disposal, he still manages to capture the essential flavor of the music, transforming it from a giant, Romantic piece to a charming bit of chamber music. It’s really a fine feat, and it’s a testament to Dearinger’s skill to adapt so iconic a composition so flawlessly.
“A Kansas Nutcracker” is one of those uniquely Lawrence holiday treats. It’s not always perfect, but it has quite a bit of charm and is very good at times. It serves as a testament to the richness both of Lawrence’s history and of its current artistic talent.