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    Dance-Along Nutcracker Goes Over the Rainbow for its 30th Anniversary

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    By Heidi Beeler

    You could call it “L. Frank Baum meets The Stahlbaums.” This December, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band sends Clara over the rainbow for “The Nutcracker of Oz,” the 30th anniversary Dance-Along Nutcracker (DAN).

    Throwing a Hollywood/Broadway extravaganza seems like the perfect way to mark the 30-year milestone, but paving Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in yellow brick is just one of many challenges in pulling off this twister-sized story. To cover all the lions and tinmen and scarecrows (oh my!), the show has the largest cast in the DAN’s history with seven key characters, six members of the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of SF (LGCSF), and six dancers, choreographed by Marilyn Fowler.

    All seven cast members qualify as local celebs in the LGBT performance scene. Donna Sachet, who just completed her 23rd annual “Songs of the Season,” dons green face paint to play the ultimate “WWW”—Wicked Witch of the West. The Wizard is Leigh Crow, who most recently finished a sold-out run as Kirk in Star Trek Live!: Mudd’s Women. Joe Wicht (aka Trauma Flintstone), who hosts cabaret showdowns and Monday-night piano bar at Martuni’s, is Cowardly Lion and cast music director.

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    Zelda Koznofski, the show’s Clara, most recently played Dr. McCoy in Mudd’s Women. Noah Haydon (Tinman) won a Theater Bay Area Award for choreography in the Thrillpeddlers’ Pearls Over Shanghai. Ruby Vixen, Glinda this year, sings with the “processed American country band” Velveeta, the Whoa Nellies and performs with Red Hots Burlesque. Flynn DeMarco, this year’s Scarecrow and the show’s director, is another Thrillpeddlers’ veteran (Pearls over Shanghai, Vice Palace, which he associate directed).

    So what exactly is a Dance-Along Nutcracker? Inspired by the Sing-It-Yourself Messiah, the DAN is all about getting the audience into the act. Think mosh-pit with fairy wands and ballet music, and you’ve got the idea. Any Sugar Plum wannabe can tie on a tutu and leap onto the dance floor while the Band performs Nutcracker faves like “Waltz of the Flowers” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” At least half the audience jumps into the fray, though wallflowers are welcome too. Only the Suite from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet (the fairyland dances made famous by Fantasia) is arranged for concert band. So the show is rounded out with music on a theme, as cast and featured performers tell Clara’s story, and sing and dance in feature numbers.

    The overall concept for this year’s show and its staging come from DeMarco. Backstage at “Nutcrackers of the Caribbean,” he and a few LGCSF members hit on the Wizard of Oz as a theme. After that weekend, DeMarco, who directed the 2013 and 2014 DAN productions, began riffing on how to recreate Oz in a theater that must also accommodate a 70-piece concert band and audience stampedes across the stage. Lighting effects, large, stylized flats and puppets manipulated by the performers take the audience from Clara’s farm to Munchkinland and the Witch’s Castle.

    “With a show that only runs four shows in two days, you have to try and keep things relatively simple while still creating a visual impact,” DeMarco noted.

    Of course, the DAN is at its core the holiday performance of the Freedom Band, and conducted by Artistic Director Pete Nowlen, music is its own major design element. Nowlen combined music from the 1939 film, as well as Wicked and The Wiz for the overture and entre act. The show includes three original arrangements created by band members. June Bonacich composed a mashup of “Cruella D’Evil” and “Mr. Grinch” that Sachet performs. Stardust Darkmatterji arranged “If I Only Had A Brain” and a mashup of “Merry Old Land of Oz” and “Dance of the Mirlitons.” DeMarco has included renditions of “Popular” and “Defying Gravity” from Wicked to tell the story too.

    “Since we create the show, it is a more creative endeavor than executing a concert or a show from pre-existing material,” said Nowlen. “Doing a show is (typically) about 10% creative and 90% execution, but with the DAN it’s closer to 50-50.”

    30 years ago, the DAN was more a concert with dancing, but today the story has become as important as the music and dancing. Intertwining Oz with the Nutcracker seemed like a natural fit to DeMarco as he planned the show. In the script, written by myself with DeMarco, Clara takes Dorothy’s place and her dog is Fritz, who breaks Miss Gulch’s nutcracker and has the sheriff called on him. The Rat King becomes the Wicked Witch and her flying monkeys become flying rats.

    “I have to say, this group is amazing at doing this, and I really get to ride along,” Nowlen added. “Through experience, they are brilliant practitioners of interactive theater.”

    Trumpet player and San Francisco Bay Times columnist Heidi Beeler has been a member of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band since 1991. She is also a founding member of the Dixieland Dykes +3. For more information: www.sflgfb.org or www.facebook.com/sflgfb