‘Best of Burlesque’ strips out the plot, leaves the stripping

Leah Haviland, one of the featured performers in The Best of Shadowbox (Shadowbox Live photo)
Leah Haviland, one of the featured performers in The Best of Burlesque (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live’s annual Best of Shadowbox shows often benefit from honing—the honing that takes place once the players have enough performances under their belts to realize what does and doesn’t work.

You’d think the same would apply to the current Best of Burlesque show, which repeats the best skits and song/dance/striptease numbers from the three previous Burlesque shows. But it doesn’t, at least as far as the skits are concerned.

Since they’re based on actual routines that were performed in old vaudeville houses, director Stev Guyer and his cast probably don’t feel free to tweak the material. And since the acting is based on the over-the-top clowning that was practiced back in the day, Shadowbox doesn’t have much room to tweak that, either.

The result is that if you’ve seen these skits before, you won’t find much that’s fresh here. Of course, if you haven’t been to the previous Burlesque shows, you’ll likely enjoy the comedy, assuming you have a high tolerance for corny jokes about the kinds of things our grandparents or great-grandparents found amusing.

Fortunately, the rest of the show bases its appeal on something that’s more timeless: sex. Because The Best of Burlesque omits the loose storyline that tied its predecessors together, it can pack in more song-and-dance numbers that inevitably leave women stripped down to their pasties and/or men stripped down to their skivvies.

Not all of these numbers are equally inspired. But when the songs are strong, the costumes are colorful and the stripping is done with panache and attitude, you can’t help sitting up and taking notice.

One number that combines great singing and great stripping is Bang Bang, with lead vocals by a fearless Leah Haviland. Shadowbox wisely places it at the end of Act 1, which allows viewers to step outside and cool off during intermission.

Act 2 kicks back into high gear with The Mating Game, in which vocalist Amy Lay holds forth in an impossibly tall and feathery hat while fairy-like creatures cavort around her. That’s soon followed by a funny and sexy take on the Coasters song Little Red Riding Hood. Brandon Anderson handles the vocals while a raunchy version of the titular fairy tale is acted out by Nikki Fagin as Red, Stacie Boord as Grandma and Guillermo Jemmott as the lascivious Wolf.

A dark perversion of sexuality is represented by Sweet Dreams, sung by Fagin and Jemmott while Jack the Ripper (Andy Ankrom) saunters around in search of his next victim. It’s one of several numbers that owe much to Aaron Pelzek’s moody lighting.

Also memorable: You Look Like Rain, with lead vocals by Kevin Sweeney and tasty instrumentals by guitarist Matthew Hahn and his band.

As stated earlier, The Best of Burlesque dispenses with a storyline. Partially taking its place are video biographies of Gypsy Rose Lee and other iconic strippers of years past. These are scattered throughout and offer interesting tidbits of information, such as the fact that erotic dancers were sometimes featured at world’s fairs. I’d always assumed these were more family-friendly affairs.

The videos made me wonder whether Shadowbox might decide to re-create some of these ladies’ classic dances for future Burlesque shows. From a historic, nostalgic and, ahem, every other standpoint, they’d be a great addition.

The Best of Burlesque continues through April 17 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 student/senior/military. Special Valentine’s Day packages are available for Feb. 14 performances. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

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Latest ‘Burlesque’ show has a biographical spin

Amy Lay, Leah Haviland and Nikki Fagin put their best foot forward in Burlesque Biographie (photo by Will Shively)
Amy Lay, Leah Haviland and Nikki Fagin put their best foot forward in Burlesque Biographie (photo by Will Shively)

By Richard Ades

Semi-nudity and seminal comedy are once again on tap at Shadowbox Live.

Burlesque Biographie reunites us with a fictitious troupe that specializes in vaudeville-style skits and erotic dancing. It’s our third visit with the company, following Burlesque de la Voyage (2012) and Burlesque Behind the Curtain (2013).

Is the new show fun? Yes, though not quite as much fun as its immediate predecessor.

Burlesque Biographie is so-named because the entire show is built around a biographical interview with troupe leader Bea (Julie Klein), whose stage name is Busty. While reporter Kimberly (Michelle Daniels) quizzes Busty about her past—including a life-altering trip to Paris in her youth—flashbacks reveal early routines that helped to shape her career.

The good thing about this format is that it gives the players plenty of opportunities to be funny and/or sexy. The bad thing is that the interview proves to be a rather tedious framing device.

Busty is normally fun to be around, being just as raunchy and foul-mouthed offstage as she is on. Here, though, she seems to be in an uncharacteristically mellow mood, even remaining unfazed when a distraught troupe member locks himself in the closet just minutes before the next performance. As a result, much of the French-named show proceeds at an escargot’s pace.

The show does redeem itself during those flashbacks, however.

The comedy bits are pretty funny, though two of the most prominent suffer from over-exposure. Amy Lay does a great job of impersonating Madeline Kahn singing I’m Tired from Blazing Saddles; and Brandon Anderson, David Whitehouse and Jim Andes are decent stand-ins for the Three Stooges in the vaudeville routine “Slowly I Turned.” Still, both bits are likely to be funniest to those who haven’t seen them multiple times.

The show fares best in the sexy song-and-dance numbers, where over-exposure is hardly a drawback. Good singing and Katy Psenicka’s playfully sensual choreography combine with risqué costumes to create several memorable moments.

Klein gets things off to a sultry start with Whatever Lola Wants. Other Act 1 musical highlights include Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, featuring Andrews Sisters-style harmonies, and Hit ’Em Up Style, in which a humorously awkward male striptease is accompanied by singers Noelle Grandison, Stacie Boord, Nikki Fagin and Leah Haviland.

Haviland, by the way, is convincing as a younger version of Busty, whom she plays in flashback scenes.

Act 2’s musical highpoints include Come On-a My House, with lead vocals by Brandon Anderson; Bang Bang, sung by Haviland; and the show-closing Zoot Suit Riot, delivered by Stev Guyer. But for sheer, colorful spectacle, the winner is The Mating Game, sung by Amy Lay and featuring a bevy of dancers in pasties and exotic headdresses.

As is the norm at Shadowbox, the musicians provide first-rate accompaniment. Considering what’s going on in front of them, they also display amazing powers of concentration.

Burlesque Biographie continues through Oct. 30 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students, seniors and military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Second helping of ‘Burlesque’ outshines the first

Amy Lay, Morgan Mosley, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Edelyn Parker (from left) in Burlesque Behind the Curtain (Shadowbox Live photo)
Amy Lay, Morgan Mosley, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Edelyn Parker (from left) in Burlesque Behind the Curtain (Shadowbox Live photo)

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.

Stacie Boord as Della Clayton (Shadowbox Live photo)
Stacie Boord as Della Clayton (Shadowbox Live photo)

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.