Burlesque to Broadway
The vivacious Quinn Lemley, best known in cabaret circles for her tribute shows to Rita Hayworth some years back, has returned with an ambitious production, Burlesque to Broadway, a loving look at the famous women who blazed a trail through the clubs, and also an updated take on the art form itself. There is never a dull moment in this fast-paced, breathtaking show, which fittingly found a home in the aging and slightly seedy Gramercy Theatre.
Backed by a nine-piece band, which began the evening with an overture featuring familiar Broadway fare, and with no fewer than a dozen dazzling costume changes over the course of the evening, Lemley made her big entrance with the appropriate “Let Me Entertain You” (Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim). While at first her lower notes got lost in the robust instrumental accompaniment, she warmed up quickly, displaying a healthy mid-range belt throughout the two-hour program (despite occasional technical glitches in sound from her lavaliere microphone). Her dancing was even more astonishing, as she high-kicked, hip-checked, grinded, and cha-cha-ed her way around the stage almost constantly, every bit the red hot den mama to the four younger dancing and singing girls who surrounded her.
She was at her best with the overtly sexy material, where the message could be delivered forcefully through the strength of her body, voice, and penetrating gaze. With Lemley decked in a flaming corset that matched her fiery mane of hair, a rocked out version of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” (Cole Porter) was fierce fun. “Big Spender” (Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields), a splendidly choreographed production with Lemley and her four “girls” making imaginative use of feather boas, was equally marvelous. Best of all was their sensational version of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” a slamming runway-type number, all legs and hips and no-nonsense countenances that could stare down any man.
Lemley took a couple of solo turns in the spotlight as well. Although well sung, Rodgers & Hart’s “Ten Cents a Dance” didn’t project the nuances of world-weariness and toughness that the lyric suggests. She fared better with her centered and honest delivery of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?”
Although patter was kept to a minimum, she was best when she recalled her restaurant-owning father or her influential grandmother, who had many common sense, folksy sayings such as, “Don’t worry about your heart, it will last you as long as you live.” Lemley and company also dispensed every well-known bad joke of those times, without apology and with great affection. (“What can I say, I love corny jokes,” Lemley told us.)
Lemley made passing references to Mae West, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Fanny Brice, but Burlesque to Broadway was short in historical details. She also briefly attempted to link burlesque to the movies (James Bond) and ’70s variety shows, with less success. “Bang Bang” (Sonny Bono) was the only misfire of the night—the material didn’t stand up to the rest, both in terms of music and lyrics, and dance production.
Also, the show did not stick to the true timeline of American burlesque performance, which was fading by the 1940s. Lemley seemed to be seeking to celebrate its roots, while at the same time updating its appeal. This was most evident late in the show when she presented a modern take on “She’s a Lady” (Paul Anka), complete with vogue-ish moves and a mid-song rap. She made a shout-out to the ladies of burlesque, who were fearless and feminist in their own way, and many of whom (like Mae West) continued to make waves long after the burlesque houses closed.
Dan Micciche on piano led the nine-piece band, and Lemley’s on-stage co-horts were Jessica Bare, Sarah Rolleston, Leslie McDonel, and Amanda Downey. Praise must be given to choreographers David Eggers and Merete Muenter, costumer Wendall Goings, and Directing Consultant Joseph Hardy. This highly physical production is an energetic extravaganza, and your eyes remain riveted to the dancers, especially Lemley herself, who holds your attention with every sidelong glance and splay of the hand.
In recent years, burlesque has been making a bit of a comeback, with productions popping up in clubs like Stage 72 and the Laurie Beechman Theatre, and in a hit movie, Burlesque, starring Christina Aguilera and Cher. With closer attention paid to the throughline, and a tweak or two to the patter and song list, the swell Burlesque to Broadway could return as a sensation, just like its star.
The Gramercy Theatre – February 5 – 8
About the Author
Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.