‘The Belles of Burlesque’ was rollicking.
Described by InsideOutside Theatre Company as “a celebration of passion, perfection, performance and a little of the perverse”, the audience was hooked within seconds of the opening announcement for ‘The Belles of Burlesque.’
Welcomed to “the Dirty Dame club” for a story of “carnal pleasures,” the 30 or so theatregoers in Brisbane’s heritage-listed Old Museum giggled in antici…pation.
As an original Brisbane production, ‘The Belles of Burlesque’ landed somewhere between the theatrical satire and playful striptease that burlesque is known for. The brief skits between musical numbers featured over-the-top sexual innuendos and whispered “misunderstandings” courtesy of story and scriptwriter Liam Donnelly. Choreography from Rhiannon Brown and Leona McLearie ranged from coy to hilariously raunchy.
Director Victoria Posner hosted the cabaret-style evening as MC Donatella “Don” D’Bauch and introduced the various performers by their stage names: The Man with the Iron Abs, The Doctor of Desire, The Red-Headed Temptress and The Gentleman Gyrator, to name a few. The relationships between Don and her Belles seemed arbitrary – some openly hostile to their host and some more playful – but served as a glimpse into the characters and presumably, a break for costume changes. With enthusiastic cheers and applause from the audience after each number, there is an opportunity for Posner to speed up her entries and exits and potentially increase her audience interaction, which could help keep a more consistent energy and pace to the show.
Set design was minimal, with risers adding three levels to the stage. This allowed the costumes to pop. With design also by Posner (along with costume construction and alterations by dancer Rita Scarlett), standouts included the red fringe dress Rhys Becks wore in an excellent adaptation of Rocky Horror’s ‘Sweet Transvestite’, and the 1920s flapper attire, complete with burlesque tassels, worn by the charismatic Scarlett as ‘Patricia the Stripper’.
The lighting (under Technical Director Tristan Holland) set the mood of a cabaret club, with spotlights primarily used to highlight various performers throughout. Colours and transitions were effectively utilised in the ‘Cell Block Tango’, a highlight of the night with great energy and vocal performances from the lady Belles. Consideration could be given to ensuring the ladies far stage left and right remain lit throughout the number, as it’s an impassioned performance of lust and murder that deserves full technical delivery.
The song choice, vocal and live band performance under Musical Director Wendy Bird and Sound Engineer Curtis Lisch were excellent. ‘The Belles of Burlesque’ included classics from ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Chicago’; nods to notable drag performances from ‘Kinky Boots’ and the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’; modern inclusions from ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘Six’, plus popular songs like ‘Bad Things’ (which some may recognise as the theme song from sexy HBO series, ‘True Blood’) – all of which had the audience singing and clapping along.
There was no weak link when it came to vocalists, with multiple solos throughout the 13 numbers. Hard to narrow down, but highlights included Matt Domingo’s “hot chocolate-y” voice in the opening number and impressive range in the Act I finale; Tomer Dimanstein’s impassioned performance in ‘El Tango de Roxanne’; Gillian Grace’s saucy ‘Six’ delivery and Chloe Boike’s impeccable pitch in her various solos and duets, maintaining tricky harmonies throughout high-energy dance numbers.
Choreography can be challenging with a large cast and multiple stage levels, so the choice to limit most numbers to a soloist and smaller group of featured dancers was an effective use of space by Brown and McLearie. It also allowed for tricks (largely via Corey Rea’s jumps and acrobatics) and partnering work, including impressive lifts. There may be an opportunity to try building the intensity in choreography with the musical crescendos in numbers like ‘Roxanne’ – with potential for more chemistry to develop, and dramatic tension to escalate, if partners remained consistent throughout.
The laugh-out-loud, most memorable dance routine was ‘The Full Monty’ number featuring the male Belles, with the audience whooping and cheering in delight. Equally crowd-pleasing and energetic was ‘Patricia the Stripper’, featuring Scarlett with Dimanstein, Aidan Cobb and Andy Cosier on supporting vocals, and the full ensemble in a joyful dance routine. This penultimate number seemed to be when the performers let loose; breaking into knowing grins and throwing their full physicality into the classic kick-line choreography. It left the audience smiling and led nicely into ‘All That Jazz’, used for the Belles to take their final bows.
InsideOutside Theatre Company has created over 40 original shows and employs a mix of emerging and professional creatives. Producer Angela Witcher notes the company also gives people with disability, dementia and diverse mental health backgrounds a chance to participate in making theatre.
After a year in development, Donnelly describes ‘The Belles of Burlesque’ as “a show all about having fun” in his program notes. His hope – that the audience enjoys watching as much as the company enjoys performing – certainly seems to have come true in this rollicking theatrical ride.
‘The Belles of Burlesque’ performs until Friday, 11 December 2020 at The Old Museum, Bowen Hills. For more information and to purchase tickets for this 18+ show, visit the Old Museum’s website.