I wake up Thursday morning, tired and groggy, as usual. As I tap snooze for the fifteenth time on my iphone, a text flashes across my screen. A message from my girlfriend reminds me that today is May 3rd, first night of the 2012 Vancouver International Burlesque festival. I admit I looked up Burlesque on Wikipedia in ignorance when Maria suggested we attend. Apparently, it’s as Italian as pizza, deriving from the word Italian word burla, meaning joke, or ridicule. What started as a parody show and became popular in Victorian society, made it’s way across the pond to America, transforming into something of a variety show. Performances boasted comedians, magicians and yes, naked women dancing. As time progressed, it was the provocative female dance part of the show that took centre stage. Somehow I think Silvio Berlusconi himself would prefer this version over the original Italian version.
I sit down with my group as the clock strikes 8. I notice my friend is looking pale. A misread text from earlier in the day had him thinking he was going to a barbeque festival. A little known fact is guys only read the first and last three letters of a word. It works great for things like tits and beer, but once words start getting longer, watch out. I remind my hungry friend that thanks to the nature of the show and the Rio Theatre’s recent victory over the Liquor Board, we’ll get a taste of both tits and beer.
A hush descends on the crowd. I stare in astonishment as some window drapes are moving across the floor. What I first thought was a magic trick, turns out to just be the emcee’s dress. However, I am no style assassin, and this is no fashion blog. In the era the first production sets itself, I’m sure drape chic was very fashionable.
The ultra suave group Pandora & the Locksmiths get the show going with some smooth melodies. A sultry Nicky Ninedoors enters the stage with other traditionally named performers Burgundy Brix and Miss Fit. My initial cynicism is blown away with a blast of vocal talent, as the girls belt out a smooth Aretha Franklin number. In between songs, the Locksmith’s lead singer entertains the crowd with his slick wit. Though dressed as a greasy wiseguy from the sixties, he entertains the crowd enough to keep them from dashing to the beer lineup. A foxy Carole Brunette trots onto the stage dressed like…well, a fox… literally. Tail, pointy ears and fur are this dancer’s duds. Any doubt over whether this show was the real thing, or a pg’d version for a square Vancouver crowd are soon dismissed. The fox gets de-furred, and before you know it, Miss Brunette is down to a thong and tassles. The show races along at a dizzying pace. A mosaic of melodies, moves and comedy make up this production, and the crowd loves it. Even the creep in front of me takes a break from shaking and sweating to take his hands out of his trenchcoat to clap.
Next up, Blue Morris reinvents some Liverpool legends, with his production of Beatles Burlesque. While this production lacks the swagger Pandora did, they rock Beatles tunes as good or better than any cover band I’ve seen. The local music teacher Morris transforms into a young Paul McCartney and owns the show, aided by the striking backup singer Ms. Kiss. The pattern continues from the previous production of music, singing and titillating dance. The show segues from song to song with awkward comedy similar to the previous show. The costumes continued to dazzle, from Russian fur hats to hippie chic.
The final production, Bender in Bermuda, finishes the night off on an average note. The production focuses on being fun, but comes off as trying too hard. The band, the Surf Messiahs, aim to prove you don’t need to be Jesus walking on water to convert the unfaithful. However, their music fails to inspire the crowd and they are left treading water. While the music is bland, and the dance seems goofy, the costumes are phenomenal. The incorporation of a storyline focuses the crowd. Despite a few early exits among the crowd, the pirate prancers of Bender in Bermuda are generally well received. Even the ironically costumed burlesque dancers dressed as crabs garner a chuckle.
The whole production, from steamy songstresses to melodious mermaids, creates a new fan in me. I can gawk at a strip show downtown for a fee. I can flip on the television and watch a concert for free. There is something priceless about the show tonight though. I believe it captured Burlesque at its finest as it flourished in the early 20th century. I’m certain the annual event will capture my attention for many years to come.