The 2017 New York Burlesque Festival Saturday Spectacular
As it dawned on me that this was my—and my Melody’s—TENTH visit to the New York Burlesque Festival, I realized I’d been watching Brian Newman perform for a decade. From trailblazing a then-invisible Tribeca venue to headlining Jazzfest with Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett —while raising a family with New York Burlesque Festival co-producer Angie Pontani— this kid is alls grows up. And this wonderful set did not disappoint, sharing exactly zero tracks with the songlist Newman was rocking even 5 years ago. The killer arrangements by pianist Alex Smith show an affinity—and a cool alacrity—for viewing classic rock juke box hits through a jazz lens. The band wailed through Thin Lizzy’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” and did an instrumental version of “Spooky,” which is how that song originated before being popularized by Classics IV and Dusty Springfield. Sax player Steve Kortyka was out this evening, but with the drummer Joe Peri, who inspired Murray Hill to crack wise about his youth, and Daniel Foose, animalistic on the bass, the band went full-on experimental with Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” with Newman soaring, crushing the “middle of my skull.” They did Newman’s new original, “Sunday in New York” and his now-classic “Take Me Back to Brooklyn,” winding up with “Just a Gigolo”/”I Ain’t Got Nobody” medley sung with real tragedy, and bringing back the rarely-heard Paris cafe lyrics. There’s a master class on arrangements and selection happening here—anyone who’s art revolves around choosing the right music should pay close attention.
When Murray Hill says he’s been doing the same jokes for 15 years, he means that he’s about to do the same joke for the 15th year in a row. Something about how many Spanx he’s wearing. How many? Not enough! (Rimshot.) Hey, whatever. Murray is GOOD at hosting this night, which is a weird night with all the middle-class, ok-rounded-at-the-corners but still squares who can afford a ticket crowding the VIP lip of the stage, and a twelve-deep mass of bodies between the bar and the rail—Murray’s gotta work close AND far, and damnit, he does it. There are precious few decent hosts still living in New York—two of our hosts this weekend are NYC ex-pats—someday we might have to fly them all in.
Bella Blue rocked the act that she debuted in Vegas at Burlesque Hall of Fame 2014, a modern dance piece in morph suit to “Stripped” by Shiny Toy Guns, that includes an excellent standing on one-leg move, ankle next to head, that becomes a glove peel; the final reveal is removing her mask. A very pretty act by Mara de Nudee from France, who describes herself as a “living Erte drawing” which maybe doesn’t sound quite as pretentious in French. Gotta love her taste in music—that Maxence Cyrin cover of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” is tres sexy. As is Mara. Stormy Leather’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is still good, no matter how many times you’ve seen it—which made me think: what if she came on naked, played the song backwards, and picked up all the cards in reverse order. Somebody pitch it to Francine’s Pink Room.
Colorado’s Cora Vette gave us something different, Snow White ditching her virginal garb for black vinyl and singing Heart’s “Barracuda”—a fucking difficult song to sing, y’all, and she NAILED it, killing the song and basically just being sexy as hell out of pure ability. Burlesque without nudity, folks, check it out, it can be done. The Maine Attraction did a big green feather act with purple fuzzies on her fingers, the act itself upstaged by her own onstage improvised antics with Murray afterwards. These two should have a sideshow routine—Maine, having lost her pasties, tried to stay covered up while squirming and grab-assing with Murray, in a scriptless art of ridiculosity that was as charming as it was hilarious. We were crying.
Speaking of Gal Friday. Of course she crushed it—that isn’t news—but what she did was both unusual for her and unusual for burlesque, and brought me to tears. First off: This was drag. Gal, hair all teased out, heavily made up, a la Marc Bolan, perfectly lip-synched the T. Rex song “Cosmic Dancer”—”Is it strange to dance so soon?” As she removed her gloves, she handed them to the koken Cheeky Lane, who took her hand to help her step out of her dress. The “vocals” were so specific, even adding a half turn as if away from the mic, to voice an “ah” that you never noticed on the recording before (and “Electric Warrior” is in heavy rotation at my house, as it should be at yours). As it winds down, Gal’s losing it, it shows — she’s almost in tears — Cheeky hands her a cloth and Gal kneels and proceeds to wipe her makeup off, the FINAL reveal; and as the tears streamed down her face Cheeky put a crown on her head. They practically fell into each other’s arms as the crowd went nuts.
I mean, what the fuck was that? People said to me that it seemed like “something else” was going on, as if Gal had tapped into something from her life, and my response was, Um, there’s always “something else” going on. That’s what it means to be alive, that’s what it is to be an artist. And whether she was just channeling Mark Bolan—and his tragic, premature death* —or something specific in her life, is absolutely beside the point. I couldn’t tell you what the fuck i was crying about, but she brought me to a catharsis.
Point: Burlesque is art.
To lighten the mood, Peekaboo Pointe followed Gal, which was perfect. Peeks gave us her “drunken stripper” act, which is probably harder than it looks. A true burlesque, she burlesques the burlesque of a burlesque performer, basically too drunk to give a shit and faking all the “sexy” moves while shooting us the bird. You kinda have to be there—it’s screamingly funny, and probably even that much funnier the more you know about performing burlesque.
Just when you think that Topher can’t squeeze another original act out of contortionism, you’re dead wrong. In white with gold trim, he had a literal sun as a mask covering his face, practically blocking his vision, making all his skillful handstands and pretzels even more impressive.
I’m told the sun was built by Joe Inzerillo, (who was responsible for Stormy Leather’s sick Cylon costume) which could spin freely, though the weight tended to bring it back to rightside-up. So while Topher’s bending himself on the floor, he’s giving us this surreal Sun face and spinning it.
This has to be new—he bumped the mask with his feet a few times, and the act lacks a button—but it’s super great, innovative stuff, and we expect to see it again, ever more mindblowing.
Speaking of mindblowing, Michelle L’Amour dropped in from Chicago. I first saw her at the NYBF ten festivals ago, walking her booty backwards at the Saturday Night Spectacular at Le Poisson Rouge. that also included Mimi First (now retired), and made me think, What the fuck is happening in Chicago? Well, Michelle L’Amour and Franky Vivid are happening in Chicago. They’ve moved into producing the kinds of shows that many burlesquers would kill to perform in, like the upcoming Halloween spectacular at the Soho House. Showing us how the big kids do it, Michelle took the stage in a deep blue “dress” that is basically one giant piece of fringe: as she posed and spun, the fringe flared out, and as she danced through the act she manipulated the “dress” to expose more and more of herself—a long spin to flare the fringe, followed by a pause; reaching back, hand to floor, an extension to show the thighs; a lean forward to tease the breasts. De-lib-er-ate. And if the custom costume isn’t impressive enough, even the music is bespoke: L’Amour told me she wanted “Black and Tan,” but “played by Danzig.” And that’s exactly what it sounded like. Classic, but through a severe and unique filter — which might just explain her entire body of work.
Monkey did this absolutely weird and hysterical serenade to a banana, re-phrasing “Strangers in the Night.” This kid has PRACTICED and PERFECTED letting a mostly-rotten banana fall just-so into his waiting mouth. That is all. And Sweetpea brought us her BHOF 1st-runner-up-getting act, which killed on the “small”er stage here in NYC. Isaiah Esquire from Portland brought the house down with his energy and physique. If you’re not familiar, he’s one of the more interesting figures in the documentary film on your Netflix queue, Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe.
And Angie —lawdy, Angie. Pontani shrugged off the classic this year and went full-on neo. In a jumpsuit with glasses and a bag of groceries, full-on Jersey MILF mom rocking out to Bon Jovi’s “Runaway,” a track so old that when it came out we all thought Bon Jovi was a metal band. Who knew he’d be on Ally McBeal? Wait—remember Ally McBeal, Angie? You totally used to watch that. ANYfuckingway, Angie made scrunchies look hot, tearing them off as she chucked her grocery bag (stocked, as Murray showed us, with a milk carton with MacGyver on the side. #80s forever.) Snapping fingers, playing the hot hitchhiker, big unzips to the guitar solo—and yeah, running. Running away. SO much fun.
It seems we usually end with the New York Legend Trifecta of Dirty, Tigger, and Julie, in some order or other, but this year Calamity Chang slipped into the final four and was absolutely brutalized by the lighting.
A nerd’s note about the lighting this year: What the FUCK? We know the lighting is terrible at Brooklyn Bowl, it just is. But this year, at the usually somewhat competent B.B. King’s, the lighting operator was literally on their phone, on social media, the entire show. As reported to me by someone with a direct view. And that shit was obvious. AND at the usually whatever Highline Ballroom Sunday night, the upstage giant LED wall went berserk, flipping on and off at random, and showed that without it, that venue just ain’t got any front lighting. That was rough, and we give it up for all the performers and hosts who had to make do—the show must go the fuck on.
Anyhoo, Calamity was performing in the dark. God bless her. In a studded hood with a spiked club, wearing chains and vinyl boots, she was rocking out to Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” in a rare use of heavy metal in burlesque—which I applaud—in an act that I wanted to see but just couldn’t.
Tigger did his controversial act from BHOF—have I mentioned how I can’t even look at my Facebook feed anymore? I don’t know what happened, ever, but burlesque Facebook has become the poster child for why burlesque should never be on Facebook. I came here to see naked people, y’all. ANYdiddle— Julie Atlas Muz closed it out with a big suitcase and a gypsy look—she is so pretty, such a gorgeous face, it’s hard to believe I’ve been watching her perform for [REDACTED] years. To The Specials’ “Ghost Town,” which features a recognizable trumpet hook, she flipped up her skirt to become a skeleton puppet, playing the trumpet. Because Julie. And ended with a giant ghost stick puppet that she carried out into the crowd.
The night closed, as it always does, with Murray Hill blowing the lyrics to “New York, New York.” Which really is more of a Liza Minnelli song.
BIG CONGRATS to fifteen years! I continue to love this scene. Sorry about all the F-bombs.
“Youth will pass away.
Then what will they say about me.”
*As legend has it, Bolan was phobic about cars and never learned to drive, convinced he would die in a car crash. Many of his most famous songs are about cars. And yes, he was killed in a car crash that his girlfriend—the driver, Gloria “Tainted Love” Jones—survived. That’s some bullshit.