Even the word coming off of someone’s lips in a casual conversation–burlesque–drips like satin off the shoulder. Its an old fashioned word, one that my Nana would have used only in one of her raciest jokes to her closest girlfriends. Somehow through its mythology I only had a vague notion of this kind of performance. It seemed to hover between dancing and stripping. It was naughty but never raunchy. It involved extravagant lingerie, make-up and hair. The phrase elicits a whole era of glamour gone by. A time when what wasn’t revealed was just as important as what was revealed. An act was born where a woman could mock Shakespeare and show her stockings. Live music was an essential part of the act. The spine of tune everyone knows is that classic snare, cymbal, snare with horns hooking notes that backs and lifts this powdered and beautifully outfitted woman to perform a fantasy act for the audience.
Les Dames du Burlesque have come to Iowa City to resurrect this va-va-va-voom spectacle. How could I miss it? I was a bit surprised and, frankly, proud of the folks at the Englert for hosting such a show. Since re-opening the theater in all its glory it has been decidedly for PG acts (with the glaring exception of the GZA). I encourage the good people at the Englert to have a few more racy gigs like this one in the future.
The line was getting antsy outside and the air was thick with warmth. When we filed into the theater I was bewildered at the set-up. Folks were to sit on stage with the act. The players were to hug one side of the stage as the audience sat cozily with them. But there was overflow and those folks were to sit in the upper balcony at an awkward angle where I imagine they could hardly see any of the show that was tucked to the side.
Cirque Stupendo opened. The band was this great amalgam of instruments. Who plays the washboard anymore? The saw? Along with horns, two drummers, a washtub bass this sound emerged that was perfect for the scenario. A chugging and sweet hearted squeezebox orchestra. They opened with “Roll out the Barrel”, a song that everybody knows but nobody knows from where.
Just like the moustaches many of the men wore, it comes from some old-timey saloon tradition. They had a lanky, handsome gentleman who was their star. The audience leaned forward collectively with baited breath as he took three tries to mount his 10 (?) foot unicycle. This man could juggle while on a tall unicycle. On his chin, he could balance a 10 ft. pole with a bucket perched atop. And he built and built on these simple tricks. In the end he was on a unicycle while balancing a bucket atop a pole on his chin. He somehow manages to get the balls he is juggling thrown into the bucket. I couldn’t take my eyes off him!
But the real heart of the act was the music. “Mack the Knife” and “Bye-bye Blackbird” were good and the ease and enjoyment of the troupe blanketed the audience with a vaudevillian air. A young man came forward with a tiny banjo and quietly announced he would like to perform a song about his girlfriends cat. He strummed a light and quick paced melody and proceeded to sing a sweet song about, “…my gurl’s pussy…”. The song built into the entire orchestra playfully singing about stroking a pussy. The audience loved it and I looked up to spot a couple making out in the front row of the balcony. Any act that inspires kissing is a great compliment to its performers. Meanwhile Les Dames were waiting in the wings, tapping their heels and smiling.
Cirque Stupendo had warmed us up and there was much scurrying and an awkward scene change. The program, ‘Ms. Jezebel’s Finishing School for Girls: A History of Burlesque’, was an ambitious 18 short acts. There was an introduction, a short reading on the birth of the art and then a big opener of “I Put a Spell on You” which mashed the Cirque orchestra with Les Dames. The women were in various costumes of stockings, garters, bras or corsets. As a woman who will never show her midriff in public again, I was in awe of the ease and confidence Les Dames displayed while prancing across stage in their revealing garments.
Some of the biggest highlights for me were ‘Shakespeare with Bunny Von Black and Trixie DeVille’. A scenario in which Bunny laments her on again off again boyfriend in a soliloquy peppered with Shakespeare quotes. As Bunny sexily confesses her confusions and feelings (and at some point during the act you’re asking yourself, ‘What man would walk away from a beautiful woman like that?’) she was backed by two violins and a cello lightly playing some Mozart. I confess, for me, the sexiest part of the evening was seeing these lovely ladies in their underwear effortlessly bowing classical music. Since I was enraptured with the trio I didn’t quite hear how Bunny resolves her dilemma. But I can guess what she said because it ends with Bunny burning the picture of her lover.
The act, ‘Cupcakes with Sugah Pie’ was so simple but worked quite well. It was a drawn out tease. Ms. Sugah Pie simply struts onstage, gets down on her knees with a tray of three cupcakes, frosts the cupcakes and then hands them out to some lucky audience members…all the while licking the spoon and her lips. The audience was craning their necks to get a full view of her ‘culinary’ skills. And wowza could she lick that spoon.
I also dug ‘The Diamond Thief,’ featuring two of the Dames dressed as cops and another as a thief, and cue cards that read just like a silent movie. Tough Kookie, the thief, who’s outfit was fabulous, is caught and made to strip– to reveal where she is stashing her diamonds. A trench coat is removed to show off a perfectly kooky dress that can come off in parts as she spins out of them. When the final layer appears it is this fabulous lingerie set that is nude in color and absolutely littered with gems. She is not stashing but wearing the jewels.
The program was also graced with Miss Millie Guns, who lip-synced to ‘Nasty Naughy Boy’. I have seen her perform before and to call it lip-syncing is really not the term because Miss Mille can really perform every breath as if it is her own.
The last thee acts melded into a musical review of songs like “Gotta Get a Gimmick”, “Minnie the Moocher” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
In the program Les Dames exalt their stage virtues to be in the spirit of “spectacle and humor.” These women want to entertain through dancing, acting, singing and playing instead of “taking their clothes off.”
The program reflected their virtues well. I want to tread lightly here because I admire so much the spirit of what the circus and burlesque troop is trying to achieve. The idea of coordinating that many people is quite impressive. It has ambition and heart. I was told this was only their second performance and I hope they keep refining their art.
I look forward to a performance without awkward cues and scene changes. As an audience member I want to sit in the seats, not on stage, and have a little more mystery involved. Use the curtain to keep us guessing. The graceful and historical arches of the theater should match the luxury and beauty of the spectacle. It was reported to me that festival goers were not allowed to exit and enter as they please, which is contrary to the spirit of the whole event. Pass holders must be able to sweep in and out as to weave their own crazy quilt night of entertainment. At next year’s Mission Creek Festival I can only hope that the Englert hosts Les Dames du Burlesque with Cirque Stupendo again with enough panache to pack the house. Trust me, ladies, you can.