By Rick Brown, NakedSunfish.com
A third of the way through Act I of Burlesque de VoyageI sensed the show’s pace was a bit slow. But upon further reflection I realized that, at least for myself, I have felt this way about most plays I have reviewed. Witnessing a performance with the intent of writing about it is very different than simply watching. And with such a large cast it takes time for character development, storyline, and staging to hit a groove. That, and the foibles of any opening night make for such vibes. This is one reason why I usually see every show twice.
Head Roustabout Stev Guyer barks out instructions to his traveling troupe while Busty Slingshot (Julie Klein) belts out Joe Cocker’s “Space Captain” to begin Burlesque de Voyage. Staging is quite sparse, with ladders and chairs serving whatever purpose necessary. Much of the action is staged within the audience. And as the crowd began actively engaging our collective imaginations, I thought of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”. Like that American classic, the actors use this sparseness effectively while the comings and goings of a hard working acting troupe begin to unfold.
Early on, Lilly (Leah Haviland) quits without notice, leading to abrupt auditions, etc. Real show biz situations with realistic show biz characters: singers, dancers, musicians, and writers … the subtext here is Shadowbox Live exposing their personal process for all to see. Burlesque de Voyage, with the exception of the music, is authentically homegrown, making the performance the perfect metaphor for one of Columbus’s finest gems. Nuanced nakedness that is brilliantly revealing. Burlesque indeed.
Shadowbox Live’s penchant for ensemble renditions of popular music is prevalent here again. Only this time, in keeping with the stark minimalism of the lighting and staging, the song arrangements are stripped down. Voices are singular. Bits and pieces of tight harmonies seemingly sneak in to give a fullness that is wonderful. All while the band understates instrumentally. Bravo to vocal arranger Jennifer Hahn and fellow bandleaders Matthew Hahn and Keith Gibson.
Musical standouts include Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” (Nikki Fagin), Bob Seeger’s “Turn the Page” (ensemble), “Big Time” by Peter Gabriel (Leah Haviland and JT Walker III), and The Doors’ “When the Music’s Over” (Stev Guyer and JT Walker III). I especially enjoyed Mr. Walker’s riveting “Fame” (David Bowie) to conclude Act I. His performance is implicitly vulnerable without losing the song’s intended edginess.
Katy Psenicka (as Kat) gives a delightful non-rock song presentation of “If I Can’t Sell It” (Karen Gallinger). I’ve seen Ms. Psenicka sing this before and it is a delightful, campy addition here … perfect for a burlesque show.
One sour note … for me at least. Jennifer Hahn and again, Mr. Walker sing Emily Browning’s “Sweet Dreams” very well. But I found the choreography violent and creepy. I realize such subjects entertain some people, but for myself it seems out of place in burlesque.
While Act I concentrates on getting ready for a show, Act II is the show. Julie Klein is terrific as Busty Slingshot, the emcee. Ms. Klein manages to be a lot Mae West and a little Dixie, her Santa Babies persona. Amy Lay (as Dani playing a nurse) steals the scene in “Miracle Curves” as much with her sexy scatterBRAIN as her curves.
And the baggy pants, suspenders and bow tie comedy is true to burlesque roots. Jimmy Mak, David Whitehouse, Robbie Nance and Renee Horton … among others … do shtick that would do Henny Youngman proud! (Take my wife — PLEASE!!! … A hooker walks up to me and says “I’ll do ANYTHING for 50 bucks!” I said, “GREAT! Paint my house!”) It is refreshingly hilarious to see a sketch comedy troupe perform old school stand up so effectively.
The writing of Jimmy Mak and directing of Stev Guyer are again both proof of the depth of Shadowbox Live’s talent and range. This is a great show that will keep getting better. It is unlike any other show, musicals included, that I have seen the troupe perform. Burlesque de Voyage is a well crafted tribute; entertaining, sexy and funny. Shadowbox Live has again reinvented itself in this Stage 2 presentation, making it the best Thursday (and select Wednesdays) night out in Columbus!