By Richard Ades
One of the most surprising letters I ever got during my time at The Other Paper was from a theater troupe seeking more publicity. What surprised me was the letter’s explanation that troupes need as much ink as they can get because, according to statistics, more people are into sado-masochism than are into live theater.
After getting over my shock at the unlikely comparison, it occurred to me that it’s probably possible to remedy the situation by mounting shows that would appeal to these non-theater-going S&M-ers. Shadowbox Live’s original Burlesque de Voyage, for example, offered a satisfying release, in the form of laughs and sexual energy, but only after forcing viewers to sit through a rather tedious first act. Punishment and reward: Surely that would have attracted members of the whips-and-chains crowd if only they’d known about it.
Unfortunately, this demographic is less likely to be attracted to the follow-up show, Burlesque Behind the Curtain, which stubbornly insists on being entertaining all the way through. The sequel is again centered on a traveling burlesque troupe, but writer Jimmy Mak wisely altered the format in a couple of key ways.
While 2012’s Burlesque devoted its entire first act to backstage dramas that were uninvolving because we hadn’t been properly introduced to the characters, 2013’s sequel alternates such scenes with songs and skits from the fictitious troupe’s stage show. Moreover, it adds interest to the backstage scenes by giving them a focus: the arrival of new cast member Della Clayton (Stacie Boord), a grownup child star with a talent for rubbing people the wrong way.
Act 1 still isn’t perfect—the backstage dramas are fairly shallow (and were sometimes sluggishly performed on opening night), and the comedy skits are so-so. But the song-and-dance numbers are both tuneful and provocative.
The show’s first infusion of lust is Maintenant, sung in French by emcee Busty (Julie Klein) and accompanied by classy/sexy dancers who soon strip down to their bras. (Pasties and thongs make an appearance before the show is over.) Continuing in the same mood, Robbie Nance sings the Coasters’ Little Red Riding Hood while the Big Bad Wolf (Jim Andes) “eats” Grandma (Boord) in a way that was never intended in the original fairy tale.
Finishing up the act, Jeff Simpson sings You Look Like Rain with tones just as beautiful as the notes band member Nicole Rachelle coaxes out of her saxophone solo.
But if Act 1 sounds good, just wait. Act 2 is five times better. Especially improved are the comedy sketches, which consist of vaudeville-type routines performed in the vaudeville style.
The evening’s first huge laugh comes courtesy of Monkey Business, delightfully delivered by Mak as a police detective and Amy Lay as a semi-clothed secretary whose boss has just jumped out of a 20th-story window. Even more laughs come courtesy of the double entendres in The Court of Last Retort, starring Brandon Anderson as the D.A., Mak as the lascivious judge and a cigarette-holder-toting Lay as the witness.
Yet even those laughs are topped by the guffaws Klein and others drag out of a naughty audience-participation bit set to the tune of I Wanna Be Loved by You.
Speaking of which, there’s still plenty of sexual content in Act 2, including a number that might even appeal to S&M types: Director Stev Guyer sings John Legend’s Who Did That to You while scantily clad “Avengers” beat a woman-abusing man (Andes) within an inch of his life.
Laughs, music, dance, nubile bodies and a feminist revenge tale: Really, what more could you ask from a show?
Burlesque Behind the Curtain will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays through Oct. 10 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. (No performances Aug. 28; Sept. 4, 11, 12, 25, 26; Oct. 3, 9.) Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.