Watching someone do a caricature of types from a past time that you actually lived through can be irritating. Take '50s singing groups. Well, sure, in a way, the groups were almost a parody of themselves. But not quite. They had their slicked-back hair and did their microphone dances, but they just were who they were. In fact, they created and carried forward a popular art form -- or at least an entertainment form.
Too often, so-called revivals are really parodies. Vince Vance and the Valiants may be great singers, but they don't take themselves too seriously and they don't expect you to.
When it comes to the burlesque revival, we have somewhat the same situation. For those of you who don't know, there is a burlesque revival out there. It's not taking the country by storm exactly, but there are young bohemian fans of the art form -- or entertainment form -- from coast to coast. Here in New Orleans, where we had a longtime world-famous strip of the Strip, we have seen a series of revivals. The first one I remember featured those charming, offbeat and only slightly naughty Shim Shamettes at the Shim Sham Club (now One Eyed Jacks). Even the Shim Shamettes, for all the freshness of their approach, usually alternated their dances with an emcee/comedian, who was deliberately crass and corny. He was a parody of the crass, corny emcee/comedians of the past. The joke inevitably got stale. How much deliberate ineptness can you take?
I feared that sort of phony nostalgia at Bustout Burlesque and I am happy to report there isn't any. The show is straight-out fun, with hardly a glance backward toward the past. To begin with, Jerry Christopher's four-piece band is phenomenal. They rock away to jazzy, mostly upbeat tunes.
The girls are lithe, alluring and they seem to be enjoying themselves, which sets a playful tone. Sometimes, for instance, they will start to remove a piece of clothing, then stop and put their hand to their ear as though asking for encouragement from the crowd, which they inevitably get.
There is no sham-bad comedian to remind us of the good old days of genuine bad comedians, instead Dante, the emcee, moves things along with lively patter, until his turn comes to perform. No, he's not a male stripper, he's a magician. He gives a marvelous display of prestidigitation. Eggs and cigarettes appear and disappear to our amazement.
Speaking of acts other than strip teases, the show also features Harry Mayronne and his superlative puppet, Miss Viola. She's a heart-winning, cantankerous, stomp-down Seventh Ward Creole. If she lived down the block from you, you'd always find some excuse to go talk to her, or rather go listen to her, while she sat on her stoop -- because you know that's where she'd be. After entertaining us with her stories, Miss Viola sings a song and even does a dance -- an exotic dance, you might say, but exotic in a decidedly unburlesque use of the term.
At the performance I attented, there also were two excellent singers, Debbie Davis and Athena. Davis sings two songs. Athena sings only one, but she makes up for this by appearing in the guise of her full title, Athena -- the Seductive Harem Girl. She does a dance in full "East of Suez" regalia, which dwindles to "regale," then "reg," then "r" -- if you get my drift. The other dancers are Foxy Flambeaux, Kitty Twist and Stormy Gale. They all put on a good show, and throw a hint of raunch into the proceedings, though there are no standup, phallic brass bars for them to rub against.
The one acknowledgment of the old days comes by way of stars from the Bourbon Street of the past. On the night I saw the show, the star was a retired dancer named Wild Cherry. She said, "Relax, I'm not going to take anything off." Then, she did a short routine of humorous banter.
By not straining to parody the old days, Bustout Burlesque gives a real sense of why that sort of entertainment thrived. And after all, think of the imagination that was at play on the heyday of Bourbon Street. Evangeline the Oyster Girl -- now there's an idea that would enthrall a surrealist. What about Rita the Champagne girl, curled up in her giant glass, like a fairy tale gone berserk. Then, we have the ultimate fairy tale, the Governor and the stripper -- Earl Long and Blaze Starr.
All of that rich past is implied in Bustout Burlesque, but the reason to go see it is simpler: it's a fun show.
- The dancers of Bustout Burlesque are part of a variety show that includes singers, magic and more.