Welcome back, Connlain!
'Dance-Along Nutcracker' puts on a fresh face with a guest conductor
by Heidi Beeler
"It was a little like having a hotline to the North Pole."
When guest conductor Bradley Connlain found himself in charge of the 2006 Dance-Along Nutcracker, he phoned Alaska. There, Gail Wilson, cabaret artist and former lead singer of Connlain's big band City Swing, was on walkabout with her sweetie on the first leg of a two-year tour, RVing about the continent in search of affordable housing in a politically progressive environment. She took the call. The upshot is that Wilson is back in San Francisco performing this weekend as the Dance-Along 's lead character under Connlain's direction. Wilson is also singing with City Swing one more time at the Gala party on Saturday evening, fronting the big band she'd sung with for more than 20 years.
"She didn't even hesitate and said yes without knowing what she was getting herself into," Connlain said with a laugh at an interview last week. "That, for me, was the icing on the cake. After the Gail Wilson Farewell Concert last April, I really didn't know whether or not I'd work with her musically again."
So what have Wilson and Connlain gotten themselves into, exactly? The Dance-Along Nutcracker is the annual holiday wingding performed by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band since 1985. Part variety show, part costume pageant, it is the choreographic equivalent of a barn-raising in toe shoes. Imagine a mosh-pit with pink tulle, theatrical lighting and ballet music, and you've got the general picture. Audience members so inclined strap on tutus and tiaras from the Tutu Rental Boutique in the back, if they haven't brought their own, and rush the dance floor while the Band performs Fantasia faves like "Waltz of the Flowers," "Russian Trepak" and, of course, our community's holiday anthem, "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."
Only the Suite portion of Tchaikovsky's ballet (the collection of fantasyland dances in the second act) has been arranged for wind ensemble. So each year, the conductor rounds out the show with complementary music and brings in guest artists to perform between dance-along numbers, giving the audience a chance to catch its breath and see a little spectacle in-between. This year, for the first time in 20 years, the Dance-Along actually tells the story of the Nutcracker. When audience members leap in to dance, they'll take part in the plot, arriving as guests at the Stahlbaums' party, or fighting as rats and toy soldiers under the branches of the giant Christmas tree. As always at the Dance-Along, the story takes a twist.
"Actually, there isn't all that much of a story," Connlain said clandestinely from one side of his mouth. "We're telling the story through the eyes of an older and wiser Clara Stahlbaum [played by Wilson]. She has reportedly been going around for the last 114 years participating in Nutcrackers all over the globe, reliving the moment and participating in the dance.
"Well, she starts the show that way, telling the version that's been told for 114 years, at which point she gets tired of it and says, 'That's it! I'm sick to death of this ruse! Do you want to know the whole truth behind the Nutcracker?' From there, she launches into a slightly off-kilter version of the story. It gives us an opportunity to do whatever we damn well please!"
Whatever they DWP includes an eclectic wish-list from the cast. Because the story is set on Christmas Eve, Connlain was able to pull out some rousing Christmas music to fill out the program, something the Band has shied away from in recent years. Wilson sings throughout the show, including a reprise of her show-stopper, "Santa Baby," which she sang at the first Dance-Along Nutcracker in 1985. Carolyn Carvajal, who has choreographed feature numbers for the Dance-Along since 1997, takes on the roles of Dr. Drosselmeyer and the Rat King. She's always wanted to choreograph a can-canning reindeer number, so that's been worked into the story. She and Corinne Levy, a Beach Blanket Babylon vet with a histo
"It's still basically a music revue," Connlain noted, "but we've got a little bit more of a story-line that ties it all together."
Connlain is stepping in as the first new conductor of the Dance-Along in 11 years. Although this will be his first time conducting the Band, he's no stranger to the Band or the show. A trumpeter and flugelhorn soloist, Connlain joined the Band when he moved to SF from New Jersey in 1982, just after Jon Sims (founder of the Band, the Gay Men's Chorus, the Lesbian/Gay Chorus and the GLBT music movement across the country) stepped down as conductor. Connlain produced several of the Band's early concerts, including "Playing It Straight (For One Night Only)." In 1985, a big band called City Swing spun off from the Freedom Band, and Connlain stepped up as that group's first manager, as well as playing trumpet. It was at the first Dance-Along Nutcracker in 1985 at the Giftcenter Pavilion that City Swing first performed a feature number with cabaret singer Gail Wilson, whom he hired for the group shortly thereafter.
So Connlain has seen the Dance-Along from its beginning. The changes he's seen in the show over that time reflect the changes he sees in San Francisco's GLBT community at large.
"When Wayne Fleisher first came up with the idea of the show as a children's show, it was kind of a scandalous thought that people would bring their children to a lesbian and gay organization's thing," Connlain said. "Now people think nothing of it, and we're mainstream.
"How do you compare your youth to middle age, not only for me personally, but for the Band? I think the whole lesbian and gay music movement has become mainstream. We're no longer fringe, we're no longer cutting-edge. It's much more accepted and mainstream than it was in the Band's earlier years. Not that it's not as much fun, but it just feels different."
Connlain's conducting credentials include a slew of musical productions, including all the Men Behind Bars music revues of the 1980s in the Castro, shows at Cappuccino Theater in San Bruno, and some of the Chuck Largent musicals including the famous Guys & Dolls production featuring a Finnochio's drag star as Miss Adelaide. He leads City Swing Big Band, known for its double entendre rewrites of songs like "Drag Queen Riot" and "It's Just My Pussy." So it was a surprise to discover that Connlain is passionate about serious music. In the early planning sessions for the Dance-Along, he said that he wanted the Band featured for itself, not treated like a pit band for the show. Finding a way to include the Hallelujah Chorus was pretty much a deal-breaker.
"My favorite part probably has to be just the Band," Connlain said. "I love. Conducting. The band. Playing a great orchestral band piece. Some of the kitsch makes me a little uncomfortable, but as I see it coming together in the framework of the show, I'm very excited about it.
"When I go home at night and can't go to sleep, and it's Midnight and I have to work the next morning, I know I'm having fun."
Heidi Beeler plays trumpet in the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. The Dance-Along Nutcracker runs Sat., Dec. 9, 2:30 & 7 p.m. (Gala); Sun., Dec. 10, 11 a.m. & 3 p.m., at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Info: www.sflgfb.org/dancealong.html or (415) 255-1355.