Like a 1980s Christmas sweater enjoying a hipster renaissance, James Sewell Ballet has made the so-called “Ken and Barbie Nutcracker” cool again. For the second straight year, the local chamber dance troupe is staging an updated version of choreographer Myron Johnson’s “Nutcracker (Not So) Suite,” an irreverent holiday tradition previously produced by the late, great Ballet of the Dolls.
Sewell’s revival opened Friday at the Cowles Center, and while the reboot is well worth seeing — especially for Deanna Gooding’s star turn as Marie — the show could use narrative and choreographic tweaking.
The premise remains as fun as ever: It’s swinging 1963, and Flo, an Upper East Side single mom with a trust fund and control-freak issues, is preparing to host her annual holiday soiree. Her daughter Marie would rather play with dolls than dance the night away, but changes her mind once she meets a handsome sweater-vest clad “nephew” (hopefully from the other side of the family) who shows up at the party as her eccentric uncle’s plus-one.
Flo (Kevin McCormick) has the only speaking role in the show, and the dialogue could be a bit shorter and snappier. The New York-based actor impressively rocks sequins and stilettos, however, and makes a pass at the nephew (Jordan Lefton). Heartbroken, Marie flees, and in the second act finds herself trapped by beatnik fans of the Rat Pack (Sinatra & Co. make frequent appearances in the infectious soundtrack). All looks smoky and grim until Dominatrix Barbie comes to the rescue, complete with pink bustier and neon whip.
Johnson’s choreography is at its best when spoofing classical steps, such as when Ken and Barbie boogie through a pas de deux. Eve Schulte, a JSB veteran, has mastered a hip-swiveling, stiff-legged bourrée. She’s equally fabulous in a scene that models the Columbine Doll solo from most “Nutcrackers”; Gooding scampers after her tutu’d idol, mimicking her stilted takes on steps, jumps and turns.
Movement for the ensemble is less strong. Tongue-in-cheek modern dance choreographers such as Mark Morris and Larry Keigwin have raised the bar for social dance scenes as performed in comedic shows like this. Even simple musical-theater-style chorus lines and box steps looked awkward, but that imprecision may reflect an effort to look extra loopy.
The overarching concept of this “Nutcracker,” though, is tough for any other Twin Cities holiday show to beat. Plenty of towns lack a professional alternative to traditional Tchaikovsky. “Nutcracker (Not So) Suite” is the spiked punch at an otherwise dry, kid-friendly party, and it’s worth splurging for, like a top-shelf martini.