Let’s do the time warp again! And by “time warp” I mean warping to an alternate universe about six months from now when the Nouveau Burlesque, downtown New York’s indigenous revival of the Great 20th Century American Burlesque, opens on The Great White Way. Now, this is an alternate universe, so it looks similar, but it is not identical to our own. In this alternate universe, some greats of our contemporary scene have different names and different histories: Jo Boobs is still the boss, but the alternate Boobs is still partying like it’s 1979. The famous, gritty theater where it all goes down is either The Box or the Slipper Room crossed with the Minsky’s National Winter Garden Theater, circa 1925, and the beautiful ingénue isn’t a brainy, erudite Fordham grad, she’s an NYU doctoral student writing a thesis on alternative gender performance, circa 1995.

Here’s the dish: The Aristocrat Theater has to close. Shine On, the lovely MILF who inherited the joint from her tranny grandfather is a star artist but a terrible manager. She mortgaged the theater to pay her quirky, in-house troupe, and now some douchebag banker from Nantucket is going to repossess it. Richard Suit, wealthy hedge fund guy, swoops in like a guardian angel (or scheming devil?) with cash to produce their show. If they can sell enough tickets – and create enough buzz – their money worries are over forever and everyone lives happily ever after. But here’s the catch: Dick Suit has the tastes of a dick in a suit. He wants teens in tartan skirts sucking on lollipops, and he most certainly doesn’t want any fat, ill-featured, outcast, misfit, talentless charity cases in the show. And that’s pretty much the whole troupe.

Dick Suit says their show is “Rent meets Stomp” — and I have to ask, is that a bad thing? If your goal is financial success you could do worse. Much worse. But here’s the everlovin’ rub: the goal for Shine and her bunch of plucky outcasts is nothing less than to keep it real. They believe in Burlesque as a revolutionary force, and that means tearing down gender distinctions, overthrowing sexual moralities of every order, sticking it to The Man by not paying your bills, and definitely — most definitely — NOT singing any cheesy Broadway love songs.

Long story short — Dick wants to fire the plus sized black woman, and he won’t allow Shine to sing her signature Sally Bowles torch song, the charmingly sentimental “Whatever Happened to the Perversions of Yesteryear?” That is, until the plus sized black woman (Dick’s word for her is “fat”) sings an ethnically appropriate defense of ample women called “Large And In Charge.” In the end Dick keeps all the nasty songs in the show, including “Doing the Nasty,” which features some immortal and poetic lyrics like “I want to kiss your nipples with the tip of my dick.” The show is a hit, the theater is saved, everyone gets paid no matter how ugly or talentless they are, and the curtain comes down on a catchy show-stopping tune, “Keep On Humpin’ the Dream.”

Despite the pretensions of the characters to amateurishness, the show is very professional: the lyrics are witty, and the music is catchy; the dance numbers are fun; the costumes are well made; and the acting is impeccable. There were some technical glitches — mics that didn’t work, small gaps in the music — but that stuff is easy to resolve. My one complaint is that a show about burlesque should have more actual burlesque numbers, those two minute, self-contained shows with a theme, a reveal, a sly wink & nod, and two clever pasties. Shine is a rip-roarin’ good time that takes us back to the dirty, funky, sexy place at the heart of the Nouveau Burlesque movement.

Of course, that heart only exists in an alternate universe. Think again about Dick’s “Rent meets Stomp” comment. When I fell off the turnip truck on the corner of Avenue B and 10th street in the mid-90s, Life Cafe was already a museum. (Did I ever tell you about seeing my first burlesque show in ’96? It was on Stanton between Ludlow and Orchard in an old, empty, tailor’s warehouse. The highlight of the show was a completely naked woman in a pig mask throwing spaghetti noodles she had soaked in her own piss into the audience. Fortunately I was out of the line of fire.) There has been dirty, edgy, wrong entertainment happening in this city, probably since it became the biggest port in North America. But that stuff is only glorious in retrospect. At the time it’s thrilling, scary, dangerous, and sublime, but the glory only happens when Memory is gilded with Time.

Dan Savage recently wrote a terrifyingly honest and awesome meditation on the growing world-wide phenom of Nouveau Burlesque (reviewed here by Cultural Capitol’s own J. D. Oxblood), which pretty much sums up the “dirty nostalgia paradox” that threatens to sink burlesque just as its practitioners start to get paid. In short, burlesque, like all rights centered revolutionary movements, started in a place where having the courage to stand up in front of your critics was proof enough of your worth. But after you become a success and the revolution is over, after you made people recognize you for who you are (to use a related metaphor, after you came out of the closet), old-fashioned, nasty, judgmental human nature reasserts itself, and you don’t get props anymore for simply getting up on stage. After the novelty has worn off, you have to give the audience what they want. So Shine, which wants to celebrate the mythical Downtown Burlesque Scene’s freedom from artistic convention, whose main character burlesques (forgive the pun) your typical saccharine Broadway love song, ends up singing a typical, cheesy Broadway love song of uplift, as if we were jerked out of our alternate reality and dumped into a showing of Hair (or Rent).

The same goes for Shine On’s number “Whatever Happened to the Perversions of Yesteryear?” She laments the passing of glory holes, hook ups in The Ramble, and dangerous public toilets. Sex is just no fun anymore, now that we can scratch every kinky itch on the internet, hold hands in public, and see our sexual idiosyncrasies portrayed on network TV. But isn’t that what we were fighting for all along? Now that we have our freedom, is it boring us?

Shine is filled with little ironies like that, and the biggest irony of all will be if it actually makes it to Broadway. Its marquee will be the tombstone for “authentic” burlesque. Meh. Whatever. The downtown burlesque scene might die, but it will be replaced with something else more raunchy and satisfying. Meanwhile, I think it’s about time Angie Pontani and Dirty Martini starred in a real, honest-to-goodness Broadway review, even if that means Nouveau Burlesque has grown up and learned to pay it’s bills. ‘Cause that’s what happens after you’ve paid your dues.

Playing now at La Mama on W. 4th Street through Saturday.

Get your tickets here.

Advertisements