Although this is the sixth year that Lily Verlaine and Jasper McCann have presented their “Land of the Sweets: A Burlesque Nutcraker” it’s the first time I’ve seen it. I went into this show with a couple of pre-conceptions and personal prejudices. First, of all the traditional holiday shows, I hate “The Nutcracker” most of all. Except for Tchaikovsky’s enchanting music, it has always struck me as corny, cheesy, built around an archaic and anachronistic sense of innocent sentiment and trivial to the point of distraction. As for burlesque, it is also corny, cheesy, built around an anachronistic and artificial sense of innocent sentiment and, like that ballet, tied to a time that, quite possibly, never was.
When it is really well performed, burlesque, with its lovely women teasingly revealing their bodies and baggy pants comedy revealing our own attraction to an easy laugh, it does have the advantage of being sexy, amusing and stagy in an old-fashioned, unself-conscious way. With the arrival of the “new burlesque” movement of the past decade or so it has also been freshened by new and talented performers and given a respectability that has all but erased its somewhat tawdry history. My hope was that these elements could be brought to that tired old holiday chestnut and some really fresh, really expert performance could make it all into an adult and engaging entertainment.
There was an abundance of beauty in this production, some high-quality staging, talented performers and at least a winking relationship to the seriously erotic, but it never managed to make either the original story or the burlesque into something fresh and refreshing. The sweets were quite cloying. I’m certain a fair percentage of the audience had returned after previous experiences, and they seemed quite happy with the evening. What was it that kept me from really engaging in this show?
For one thing, there was a tension in the production’s revisiting of the style of old-time burlesque with our contemporary appreciation of women. The MC, Jasper McCann, had the confidence and suave presentation he needed, but not an especially strong identity, other than as the guy who guided us through the story, along with three beautiful, non-speaking female attendants (the snowflakes) and a non-speaking female assistant who swept the stage and kept everything working. That just didn’t feel right. Then, to have the women perform number after number where they predictably removed clothing until they were left in g-strings and pasties actually became tedious, and made the various settings and storylines seem both irrelevant and contrived. To me, striptease should never be about bodies, but about female sexual power. Didn’t happen in this show.
That was in spite of Lily Verlaine’s personal magnetism and burlesque experience, in spite of Miss Indigo Blue, Kitten LaRue, Paris Original and the other very attractive women who performed, in spite of the skillful aerial work by The Aerial Suites, in spite of the fabulous, grandly over-done drag queen, Patty O’ Furniture, and in spite of every attempt to distract us from the inevitable movement from costumed beginning to the nearly naked finish.
It was really in the performance of Seattle’s best “boylesque” performer, Waxie Moon, where the inadequacies of the rest of the show became apparent. His Rat King number had him down to skin (and a hairy tail) in no time, but as every layer of cloth was removed another layer of character was revealed. His intensity, his focus, the intention and theatrical articulation of his every move created actual theatre, and cast the rest of the evening into the harsh light of artifice and imitation.
Maybe I’m taking all of this too seriously, or holding it to an unfairly high standard of theatrical performance, but it’s really because of the respect and affection I have for burlesque in its finest form. It’s probably also because I really hoped this would salvage and revive that tiresome old “Nutcracker” for me. As I said, there was a lot of talent on this stage and a lot of effort went into this production. Many who were in the audience will probably be back again next year. But not me.
PICTURED ABOVE: Babette la Fave, Lily Verlaine and Waxie Moon.
PHOTO BY: Chris Blakeley.