Owen/Cox’s ‘Nutcracker’ a modern take on old Christmas tale

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was written by E. T. A. Hoffmann in 1816, and that original version is a far darker and weirder tale.

The dance based on it, as performed by the Owen/Cox Dance Group, serves as a refreshing antidote to and sometimes a commentary on the Christmas-y cliché of Tchaikovsky. Saturday night on the campus of Johnson County Community College, the Owen/Cox Dance Group premiered its fifth annual production of Hoffmann’s tale.

Although the Owen/Cox production is based on the older, original Nutcracker story, it is a relentlessly modern take on the Yuletide tale. That's evident from the costumes, created by Peggy Noland along with Peregrine Honig, who contributed works for the Sugar Plum Fairy and Arabian Dance. The designs, pointedly eschewing the traditional Victorian-era velvet and lace, favor brightly colored polka-dots on spandex tights, tons of taffeta and a neon pink sequined minidress.

The modernity is equally evident in Jennifer Owen's inventive choreography. The company's co-artistic director, Owen has created an admirably eclectic blend of styles, combining elements of traditional ballet with a smattering of contemporary, modern and ballroom. There's even a hint of the Charleston and bits of stripteasing burlesque during a wildly unconventional dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The music is a similarly unorthodox blend of old and new. Original compositions alongside reworked versions of the well-known Tchaikovsky melodies, arranged by Brad Cox, are performed by The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City, playing its signature brand of boozy, woozy, sometimes deliberately chaotic modern jazz. Mark Southerland, who doubles as the King of Mice, makes an unconventional entrance, strolling to the stage from the back of the house, angrily squeaking his hand-built horns. Jeff Harshbarger, a stalwart of Kansas City's jazz scene, is typically excellent on the standup bass. Harshbarger falters, though, in his second role as the voice-over narrator, stumbling once or twice over the script. Playgoers would have been better served with a more sonorous voice and less distracted narrator.

The musicians – for good and ill – are the true stars of this show. With 16 pieces, mostly brass, the band often overwhelms rather than complements the kinetic performers. Only once, during the Waltz of the Snowflakes, when virtually the whole cast swarms on stage, does the theater truly feel filled with dance.

Of those dancers, Winston Dynamite Brown stands out as the title cracker of nuts. William Cannon, playing the family's father, is simply outstanding. His ferocity and sharpness pops through the proscenium. Betty Kondo has lovely lines, and manages to be sensual but not sexual in the lead role of Marie. Jennifer Tierney's “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is a deliciously sassy, show-stealing highlight, and the cast also includes six students from the Paseo Academy of the Fine and Performing Arts who manage to make up with energy and enthusiasm what they lack in technique.

The production, although charming in its own right, functions most effectively as commentary on Tchaikovsky's well-trodden work. That is most evident at the opening of Act II, when the narration playfully hints at the “culturally insensitive” but “time-honored stereotypes” to follow. They do, but the Chinese Dance, Spanish Dance and Arabian Dance have been so thoroughly reworked there's nothing stereotypical about them.

The Nutcracker and Mouse King will please lovers of dance, though perhaps not win many new converts to the form. Inventive and solidly produced, the unconventional blend of styles, colors and sounds offers a welcome respite from the seasonal torrent of Yuletide cliché.