The classical Nutcracker gets a Midwestern kick, with boots.

Dream of Fields 

The classical Nutcracker gets a Midwestern kick, with boots.

It's 1988. A Jewish girl plays Clara in the State Ballet of Missouri's Nutcracker. After she's spent thankless hours in front of that damn growing tree, extending one arm after another ever upward in feigned amazement, running from men in mouse suits and pretending to love a glorified wooden kitchen appliance, The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle all but laughs at her: "Jewish Girls Play Lead Role in Christmas Story." (Two girls alternated performances.) Asked if she feels funny acting in a Christmas play, the child is quoted as saying, "It's pretty weird. I usually try not to think about it."

If only we had then what they have now: a spin-off Nutcracker for every demographic in the union. There's The African Nutcracker, in which Harlem youngsters visit their ancestors in Africa; Freudian Nutcracker, about a boy who, unable to return to his mother's womb, sublimates his desire to do so through dance (in the Spanish Dance, he projects matador fantasies); a gay Nutcracker in San Francisco known as The Dance Along Nutcracker, for which audience members wear their own tutus; The Klezmer Nutcracker, alternately titled The Golden Dreidel; and an '80s Nutcracker, with performances by roller skaters. (In that decade, roller skaters were their own special demographic.)

It was only a matter of time, then, before we got A Kansas Nutcracker, set in the 1850s, with Tchaikovsky's score reworked for a twelve-piece mandolin orchestra. In writer-director Ric Averil's version, Clara, whose last name remains Stahlbaum, attends not a fancy-schmancy Victorian party but rather a barn-raising celebration. The first act is a play, with bonnet-wearing partygoers doing a little bit of folk dancing. Drosslemeyer -- a sinister, cape-wearing magician in the original -- dresses in Western gear to portray an itinerant tinkerer and peddler. He shows up with his nephew, on whom Clara develops a crush. The adults at the party discuss wiley Midwestern weather patterns. They curse pesky field mice. But mostly, they talk about slavery and the intensifying border conflict. Missouri ruffians show up unexpectedly, and even abolitionist John Brown puts in an appearance. What little girl wouldn't have a nightmare after such drama? "The political strife is setting the scene for the unease in her dream," explains Lawrence choreographer Deb Bettinger.

Thus, Clara drifts off to sleep and sees one of the brutish Confederate party crashers transformed into the Mouse King (played by Averil), leader of a pack of tinier field mice. She fends him off, as she does in the original E.T.A. Hoffmann tale, by throwing a slipper at him just as he's about to kill Drosslemeyer's nephew. And so the young boy and girl, having defeated the rodents/Missourians, visit not the Land of Sweets but the bloodless, slaveless Kansas of their dreams. There, pigs hunt for mushrooms (in place of the delicate Dance of the Reed Pipes), a cavalry rides (whereas the Russian Trepak once leaped) and snakes worm around (whereas Arabians once seduced one another).

"It's really fun to think differently and go someplace else," says Bettinger, who oversees the dance pieces. But by someplace else, of course, she means right where she is. "It practically put itself together," she says. "My heart was in it."

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