So here it is, a very rainy, depressing Saturday afternoon in New York, and I am following an audience into the back of a theatre near Times Square in midtown. I am carrying my wet umbrella, as well as a nagging sense of guilt. We are all going in to see a burlesque show, that’s right, a striptease. I feel a sense of embarrassment as I realize I am just another man in a raincoat. But instead of the sad strip club environs that normally house such steamy enterprises, we are entering into the Florence Gould Hall on East 59th Street, a spiffy and legitimate performance space and concert hall, and to my genuine relief the women in the audience seem to well outnumber the men in raincoats.
As I take my comfortable, clean seat, my mood lifts at the sight of the bandstand in front of me; a baby grand piano dominates stage right in front of an electric keyboard, a drum set is raised on a platform at center, and several music stands placed elsewhere around the stage are set out for saxophone, electric guitar, bass, clarinet, trumpets and trombone. Nothing seedy about this set-up, I thought, and as the tuxedo-clad band members take their entrance, the classiness of this modern-day celebration of yesterday’s world of Burlesque becomes apparent, and the silly sense of faux-guiltiness has quite vanished.
I am at a press event of sorts, actually. The company of “Burlesque To Broadway,” starring Quinn Lemley, is running through an abbreviated version of their concert-length performance, in anticipation of an upcoming four-night stand at the Gramercy Theatre, and I am attending to represent Front Row Center at the event. I am also here to see Quinn, after all these years; she appeared in a featured role in an Off-Broadway revival of a musical I co-wrote about twenty years ago. It was a rock ‘n’ roll spoof of horror movies, set in a high school in West Craven, CT, and Quinn played the bitchy head cheerleader. She was very good back then, and I was curious to see what sort of a performer she had developed into since. A beautiful, sexy redhead with an attractive singing voice, I knew she had performed a one-woman show for some time where she played Rita Hayworth, but thanks to Facebook (where we share almost 50 friends) I became aware that Quinn had gone from singing “Zip!” to living it, via “Burlesque To Broadway,” in which she has been starring for some time now, touring through all those big theaters in the hinterlands.
House lights out and the girls are suddenly onstage in a spotlight, a flurry of bare skin, long legs and pink feather boas. Headset microphones allowing her voice to carry through the big, brassy sound of her snappy onstage orchestra, Quinn Lemley invites us “to enter a world of sequins, feathers and fans” as she talks about the origins of burlesque at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, then launches into a seductive version of “That Terrific Rainbow” from “Pal Joey,” interspersed with Mae West throwaway punch-lines and dreadful vaudeville groaners, which she delivers with an assured deadpan. Lasting only about a half-hour, this abbreviated show is in itself something of a tease; nevertheless Quinn and her girls shimmy and shake and bump and grind, and despite the time constraints, manage to conjure up the long-gone showbiz ghosts of Sally Rand, Ann Corio (whose show, “This Was Burlesque,” I actually saw at the Ivoryton Playhouse), Lili St. Cyr and Gypsy Rose Lee. The beautifully choreographed fan dance that ends this performance is simply gorgeous. Stunning. You simply have no idea how many different shapes these fans can create until you see it; at one point, I swear, the girls had transformed themselves into singing clams, opening and closing their pink shells seductively. When you’ve got it, baby, flaunt it.
“Burlesque To Broadway” — what a fun, fab, glam show. What a great way to dispel the gloom of a rainy Saturday afternoon in midtown. The longer version that will play at the Gramercy features a program of about twenty musical numbers. And as for Quinn Lemley, well, she hasn’t aged a day since I saw her last, but she has indeed grown; from a talented young triple-threat performer into a bona fide Burlesque star.
As the house lights came back up, I put my raingear back on in a much happier mood than when I entered. But I abashedly declined the swag bag they were giving to the press; it was filled, of course, with pink sequins, feathers and boas. Not bringing that on the subway, I am thinking, at least not while I am wearing a raincoat.
“Burlesque To Broadway” opens at the Gramercy Theatre, 127 East 23rd Street, on February 5 for a four-night stand. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster or the Theatre Box Office at 212-488-7949.