Millie Pepple hasn’t missed many “Prairie Nutcrackers” since she began making the six-hour drive from Shenandoah, Iowa, to Hutchinson to see the show in 2004.
“I hate to miss,” the 62-year-old former nurse practitioner said. “It’s so wonderful. It makes my Christmas season.”
She’ll be at the Historic Fox Theatre on Saturday for her holiday fix as the curtain opens tonight on the 12th season of the biennial Great Plains spin on the classic holiday ballet. The show runs through Sunday.
The music from Boston composer Rick Kuethe, who adapted the show’s score from Tchaikovsky’s original and who will be on hand for each performance this weekend, is what first drew Pepple to Hutchinson. She became a fan of his music in the 1990s after hearing it at a birthday party. A friend discovered the music at Homer’s Music in Omaha, the city from which Kuethe hails.
“I went home and ordered all of it,” she said.
She calls “Prairie Nutcracker’s” music “lyrical” and “special” and looks forward to the show’s dancing and story. She usually attends with a friend who drives up from Wellington and with companions from back home. This year she’ll be traveling with Kuethe’s sister from Omaha.
Though this will be the show’s 12th season, audiences were first introduced to Director Betsie Andrews’ version of “The Nutcracker” in 2000. Set in 1869, four years after the arrival of the railroad and the end of the Civil War, the ode to the American frontier grew out of Andrews’ desire for something different than the oft-repeated Tchaikovsky ballet.
She saw an opportunity to fashion a new production out of the original “Nutcracker” by mining Kansas’ rich pioneer history. To that end, the premise of a world unfolding from the dreams of a child and her new doll remained, but characters were renamed and scenes adapted to capture the “the land of the golden prairie.”
"We have real meaning and history in our production," Andrews said in comparing the show with its traditional counterpart. “It's not just based on fantasy.”
This version centers around an Army family as it arrives to serve at a western Kansas fort. Nine-year-old Lucy Miller, of Arlington, portrays the pivotal character of the family’s daughter, Little Laura, a wary girl trying to adjust to her new life in a strange, wild place.
On Laura’s odyssey with her doll, she encounters the hallmarks of life on Kansas’ frontier, including agriculture, the one-room school, church, Native Americans, cowboys, wildlife, the weather, and even life and death.
“We're educating people," Andrews said.
With that in mind, third- through fifth-graders will descend on the theater this morning for a special “By the Bus” informance that takes students on a behind-the-scenes look at the production, introduces them to dancers and other featured performers, and teaches them about Kansas history and culture.
Andrews said the show appeals because of its simplicity, pace and accessibility.
"It's clean; it's simple. We don't junk it up. … It moves quickly” she said. “It's not so cerebral. You feel like you're not dumb."
The cast of 55 ranges in age from 7 to 70 and comes from Arlington, Buhler, Great Bend, Hutchinson, McPherson, Salina, Turon, Wichita and as far away as Japan. Rino Akae, 16, a classical ballet dancer attending Hutchinson High School as a Japanese foreign exchange student, is performing in the show.
Along with Kuethe and Miller, this year’s other featured performers are Molly Zongker Williamson, dancing as the Prairie Doll; Matt Barnes, of Denver, portraying the Toy Soldier; Rhiannon Vieyra, of Hutchinson, dancing as the Snow Queen and Tribal; Rachel Hansen and Grace Zongker, of Hutchinson and Buhler, dancing as Snow Queen attendants; and Abigail Geesling, Buhler, dancing as Daisy.
Musicians Lisa Mitchell, Doug Mitchell and Brad Wingert, all of Hutchinson, will provide live pre-show music. Ray Nicodemus, of Wichita, returns as the show’s balladeer, waggoner and fifer.
Also a feature of the show are the more than 200 authentic pioneer outfits and dance costumes managed by costume mistress Kathy Zongker, of Buhler.
“It’s a great way to start the season, clear the decks, focus on what’s important and leave with a piece of the prairie in your heart,” Andrews said.