There’s been something of a mini burlesque trend going on in New York theater lately. A few weeks ago, I went to see something called La Soirée, which is a sort of combination of burlesque and circus show. And recently a new high-end burlesque show opened at the Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in the Paramount Hotel.
The most recent incarnation of this phenomenon is a show called Burlesque to Broadway at the Gramercy Theater, featuring Quinn Lemley. Miss Lemley is a beautiful, Rita Hayworth-like redhead with a fine singing voice who has been a fixture of New York’s cabaret scene for some time. Her new show loosely ties together some songs tangentially related to burlesque (as well as some other songs not so tangentially related), along with some corny jokes of the Sophie Tucker variety, some back-up dancers in glittering costumes, and a live band, into a two-hour theatrical presentation. But it’s really more of a standard cabaret show meets Las Vegas revue that would be more suited for a cabaret space like The Rainbow Room (which no longer exists) or Joe’s Pub (which does).
The problem that I have with cabaret shows in general (and it’s the same problem I have with such TV shows as American Idol and The Voice) is this: Why should I go see someone sing a bunch of songs that have been more memorably sung by someone else? So, for example, when Miss Lemley performs “Hey, Big Spender,” we immediately compare it to the version we’ve heard in either the film or stage production of Sweet Charity. Or when she performs not one, but two, of Barbra Streisand’s signature numbers from Funny Girl (“My Man” and “”Don’t Rain on My Parade”), it’s inevitable that we’ll measure it against Ms. Streisand’s version. The trick to producing a good cabaret show, therefore, is finding songs that no one’s heard of (hopefully) and introducing them to a new audience.
And can we have a moratorium on shows that call audience members up on stage? The only New York theater trend more annoying than the Obligatory Standing Ovation is the Obligatory Audience Participation.
There are some things to recommend this show, such as the live band (particularly the drummer) and the sparkly costumes. But given the garden-variety patter and stale jokes, it doesn’t rise to the standard of a true theatrical experience. In a more intimate space, however, such transgressions might be more easily overlooked.