Owen/Cox Dance Group’s jazzy ‘Nutcracker’ is a trip

Most of the viewers who showed up at the Folly Theater Saturday night knew they weren’t there for a traditional holiday show.

The Owen/Cox Dance Group’s jazz-dance retelling of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” received a rousing response from an audience that largely bought into the postmodern, deadpan humor of the piece. From precise, athletic dance moves to a wholesale reworking of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet by the People’s Liberation Big Band, the show was a trippy, alternative take on a Christmas classic that brought together some of the most innovative artists in town.

Still, the show wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea and the audience thinned out a bit after intermission. Most viewers responded enthusiastically to the show’s explosions of color, kinetic choreography and aural sophistication.

The arrangements – credited to Patrick Alonzo Conway, Brad Cox, Jeff Harshbarger, Forest Stewart and the band generally – were playful mashups of jazz styles and pop-music motifs. The muscular horn and rhythm sections in the 17-piece ensemble were augmented by a pedal-steel guitar and a range of keyboard instruments, including Rhodes and toy pianos. In each case you could pick up on the original “Nutcracker” melody lines, but Maestro Tchaikovsky’s work was largely a point of departure.

As Cox explained in introductory remarks – which were comically drowned out by the rambunctious band – the narrative was taken from the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story about a toy Nutcracker who must fight the evil Mouse King and liberate the dolls in young Marie’s toy collection. The dance ensemble included the characteristically larger-than-life Christopher Barksdale as Godfather Drosselmeir, the toy maker, and Winston Dynamite Brown as the Nutcracker. Choreographer Jennifer Owen first appeared as Fritz, Marie’s bratty brother, and reappeared in the second act as the Sugar Plum Fairy in one of the show’s must amusing and well-executed dances.

Catherine Russell as Marie captured the right balance between elegance and youthful exuberance, while William Cannon and Megan Horton as Father and Mother brought a crisp, stylized and sensual quality to their roles. Students from the Paseo Academy won over the crowd with an infectious “Dance of the Merlitons.”

Saxophonist and “horn sculptor” Mark Southerland – the only musician who got to emerge from the pit – made a spectacular entrance from the back of the house as the Mouse King. Costumed in an enormous robe more suggestive of a musk ox than a mouse, Southerland bleated his way to the stage, where the Mouse King met his amusing demise in the wings, out of sight of the audience.

The show’s wry narration was read mostly by bassist Harshbarger, although Cox, outfitted in a fright wig, provided the commentary from an onstage piano for “The Story of the Hard Nut.” Costumes designs – credited to Peggy Noland, Peregrine Honig and Southerland – were colorful and deceptively simple. John “Moose” Kimball’s lighting made a major contribution.