Burlesque requires a careful blend of elements. Naughtiness, glitter, nipple tassels, stripping, irreverence, taste, wit, and so forth. Too much or too little of these ingredients, and the show can veer towards being superficial, tasteless, meaningless, or just rather dull. ‘Best of Burlesque’ showcased an ample amount of bosom and sparkle, but did not have the kind of depth that makes for great burlesque.
The show does not live up to the anarchic possibilities offered by neo-burlesque, nor does it remain traditionally old-school.
The show opened with a rendition of All That Jazz and a strip-tease which was expertly performed by two dancers. This immediately gave the night a traditional 1920s Weimar Berlin cabaret vibe (Yes, ok All That Jazz is from Chicago and Kander & Ebb's other show, Cabaret, would have been more analogous, but the 'vibe' is still valid. Ed.). The next performer was a voluptuous blonde who could give Marilyn a serious run for her money: Isabella Bliss. She exhibited a striptease parodying My Fair Lady, with the fabulous Ascot costume. A lovely touch was the point at which she opened her parasol to allow a shower of red petals to blossom onto the stage. Next up, Whiskey Falls from Aberdeen, a ballet-dancer. Then another ballet dancer: Little Lady Luscious. The penultimate act was arguably the most enjoyable from a narrative point of view – a bumblebee dancing around a flower attempting to penetrate her with its sting. This performance drew many laughs from the audience for its wittily executed pollination-cum-mating ritual, while still providing much in the way of titillation. The closing act was the gravity-defying Betty Delight, who strutted peacock-like around the stage with some impressive feathered fans and a headdress. All very entertaining and professionally done.
However the show does not really progress from this level of superficial visual entertainment, (aside from the bumblebee and flower sketch) and could have benefitted from more consistency in theme and aesthetic. A cabaret show is by nature a hybrid creature, but nevertheless this show seemed slightly too flighty, flashy and disparate to be cohesive.
Another problem was the compere – simply not funny. At one point the audience were invited to join in a sing-along about Chairman Mao. Lots of Nazi Germany jokes, including a Gestapo ‘knock-knock’ number. This might have made more sense had the whole performance been centred around the Weimar-era cabaret scene with its focus on political satire and black humour, but this was not. He also insisted on making uncomfortable jokes about the female stage-hand. A lesson or two could be learned from the Cabaret films of 1972 and 1992, and the masterful performances of Joel Grey and Alan Cummings.
An enjoyable evening, if somewhat over-priced, which offers much in the way of visual delights but ultimately does not have a great deal to say to itself. The show does not live up to the anarchic possibilities offered by neo-burlesque, nor does it remain traditionally old-school. That said, it was a delight to see female bodies celebrated in a range of different sizes – ranging from the toned and muscular ‘flower’ to the tremulously curvy ballet dancers. An evening of relatively clean, sparkling, befeathered spectacle.