December 16, 2010 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
‘Nutcracker’ with a twist

Andrew Tuttle, left, and Josh Bennett in rehearsal for 'Men in Tights.' (Blade photos by Michael Key)

‘Men in Tights: a Pink Nutcracker’

Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington

Lisner Auditorium on the G.W. campus

730 21st Street, N.W.

Tonight at 8

Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m.

Sunday at 3 p.m.

Tickets are $20, $35 and $50

202-293-1548

Arlington resident Josh Bennett was a late bloomer — at least as far as his dancing was concerned.

The 35-year-old Montana native who ended a six-year stint in New York when he moved to the D.C. area in January, didn’t start dancing until he was 22. But years of training, a dance degree, experience dancing in a company and parts in the national touring companies of “The Producers” and “Oklahoma” have strengthened his abilities.

He’ll put those skills to good use this weekend as Clarence, the romantic lead in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s “Men in Tights: a Pink Nutcracker,” a gay version of the holiday ballet classic the Chorus is reviving after a popular run in 2004. The show runs through Sunday at the Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington University campus in D.C.

Chorus choreographer/director Craig Cipollini says Bennett was a natural for the part.

“For one, he’s a really, really good dancer,” Cipollini says. “And having watched him perform, he’s got a certain naiveté and innocence but at the same time he can be masculine and sexy. He can be fun. I thought he could carry it. I needed someone who could be young and innocent to an extent but who could also play the comedy but also dance and have sex appeal. He had all the right qualities.”

Bennett, who sings tenor one — the highest male range —was drawn to the Chorus more for the chance to sing. Though he has an Actors’ Equity card, he’s working at a concierge at Archstone in Crystal City. Burned out on New York, D.C. and the Chorus are giving him a chance to figure out what’s next.

“I’d never hung out with so many gay men at once so having that support, I was actually really surprised,” he says. “I didn’t know what to expect. I knew there would be some sort of group dynamic but I never expected the level of encouragement and acceptance. It’s really blown my mind how wonderful this group of men is.”

This weekend’s show, which opens tonight at 8, is half concert, half ballet, much like last year’s “Snow White” production which, ironically, got delayed for snow.

Chorus Artistic Director Jeff Buhrman, a member since 1986 who’s in his 11th season at the helm, will lead the 30-year-old Chorus through a nine-song set list that includes Christmas standards like “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night” along with a tribute to mothers called “In My Mother’s Eyes,” a number from the Chorus’s upcoming production of “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (“Hard Candy Christmas”) and several others. With more than 200 singers on stage, this is the largest-ever group the Chorus has had. An organ is being rented for use on several numbers. A brass ensemble and group of percussionists will also provide accompaniment.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with how the rehearsals are going,” Buhrman says. “The show is in great shape and it will definitely get everyone in the holiday spirit if the cold weather hasn’t already done that.”

The “Nutcracker” segment is designed for laughs. Buhrman, who led a group of Chorus members several years ago in setting gay lyrics to the Tchaikovsky score, says the earlier production — slightly tweaked for this year — was the Chorus’s most popular Christmas show.

“I think it’s leaning more toward a parody,” Cipollini says. “We wanted it to be as funny as possible. Not to make fun of anybody in particular, but we just said, ‘Let’s try to make this a really funny show in a campy way with lots of drag queens, showgirls and so on.’ We gave the lyrics a gay twist and made it into a gay love story.”

Bennett’s Clarence will dance with Andrew Tuttle’s Prince in the central romance. This will be neither Bennett nor Tuttle’s first time dancing with men. Tuttle is a D.C. Cowboys dancer and Bennett remembers one ballet from his company days in which he was paired with a straight male dancer for an atypical routine. There are also several tricky lifts that are stylistically borrowed from traditional ballet but take on a homoerotic twist in Cipollini’s version.

“There hasn’t been any discomfort with Andrew and I,” Bennett says. “It is different from dancing with a girl. You don’t have to worry about grabbing him in an inappropriate place like you do with a girl, so it’s a little more free. The contact is really great and … I think the love we share on stage will be palpable to the audience. We had comments yesterday in rehearsal about how moved they were by the choreography.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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