Vamping out of the underground with SHINE: A Burlesque Musical

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SHINE: A Burlesque Musical heats up Granville Island in its racy salute to Vancouver’s thriving scene of pasties and fishnets

As almost anyone in Vancouver’s thriving bump-and-grind scene will tell you, it’s not easy putting on a burlesque show. Sure, Dita Von Teese is doing ads for WonderBra and the SuicideGirls are performing in stadiums, but most local acts are still slogging it out in punk-rock bars, legions, and faded dance halls.


Watch a preview trailer for SHINE: A Burlesque Musical.

Now a racy new theatre show called SHINE: A Burlesque Musical pays homage to the underground burlesquers who struggle to perform their vintage art. It’s created by comedic cabaret songsters the Wet Spots (Cass King and John Woods), with the help of writer Sam Dulmage plus the talents of the Screaming Chicken Theatre Society, which has brought its twisted team to everything from Taboo Revue variety nights to live adaptations of Ed Wood’s Orgy of the Dead. SHINE is about a troupe of misfits trying to save a theatre from demolition—or commercialism. Along the way are send-ups of classic fan dances, balloon stripteases, and Las Vegas chorus lines.

“It’s really a metaphor for our community—so much of it at our level is held together with chicken wire and duct tape,” says King, a regular on the local burlesque variety circuit and part of the city’s retro-vaudeville scene dating as far back as the late great Blue Lizard cocktail-lounge nights at the Waldorf Hotel in the ’90s. In the midst of the recent choking heat wave, she and Screaming Chicken’s April O’Peel (who’s known off-stage as Lauren Allen and shares SHINE choreography credits with Rebecca “Melody Mangler” Franklin) have met up with the Straight in one of the only air-conditioned cafés on the Drive. King adds: “It’s also a love story to the new burlesque and variety arts. We are about trying to build this art form.”

A new generation of indie artists is intent on reclaiming the camp and vamp of the 1920s to ’50s—and, in the case of dancers like O’Peel, using it as a kind of empowerment. As she puts it: “I think the attraction to burlesque now is seeing a woman who doesn’t necessarily fit society’s definition of beauty be confident with her body.” Burlesque may have a new attitude about stripping, but it’s still often relegated to the grittier spots in town. “When I first started working with Screaming Chicken, the only place we could work was the Cobalt,” recalls O’Peel of the Downtown Eastside punk-rock hot spot.

Enter SHINE, which had its beginnings at the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival in 2008, when King and Woods threw together a few songs and some acts and called it By the Seat of Our Panties. “It was a burlesque on burlesque shows, making fun of a lot of the acts today,” King explains. “We had written three numbers. We said, ”˜We could do a whole show about this bohemian struggle to put on burlesque shows and this struggle to sell a show that’s not “commercial”.’ ” Woods continued writing songs, they brought on Dulmage to help work in a plot line, and spent eight weeks developing a full-book musical that debuted to two sold-out shows at the WISE Hall at last May’s Burlesque Fest in May.

With continued polishing under the direction of Jen Cressey, SHINE isn’t being staged in an underground venue this time around. Instead, the musical runs from Wednesday (August 12) to August 22 at the Waterfront Theatre on bright and touristy Granville Island. And no, they haven’t made it family-friendly.

“We wanted a legitimate space for adult entertainment—we could have put the show up in the WISE Hall or the legion, but we chose not to,” says King, whose own Wet Spots have performed in such tony auditoriums as the Sydney Opera House and Massey Hall. “We wanted to see what it looked like in a big space. And we wanted to give Vancouver burlesque the opportunity to grow into a space like that because Vancouver is doing some of the raciest, edgiest, most exciting burlesque anywhere.”

In a way, points out O’Peel, it’s a return of the art form to the more commercial venues where it got its start. “Burlesque used to be on Broadway, in with the theatre arts, but I guess because of the lewd nature of it, it just got shut down. And when it got forced into the night clubs and those places, it had to get ”˜nakedier and nakedier’ just to draw an audience.”

The creative team isn’t worried about filling the theatre—with audience members or energy. There are enough big show numbers, pumped-up songs, and wild costume changes (reportedly more than 100) to play on a sizable stage.

In fact, O’Peel and King have only one small concern about the decidedly mainstream venue. “We’re expecting to have to teach the theatre audience there how to scream and holler and shout like they would at a burlesque show,” explains King. “This is a little more like going to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

O’Peel and King report that there is a definite feeling among the 13-member cast that SHINE is the little show that could. When King alludes to Rocky Horror, and later makes a comparison to the bohemian-artist story of Rent, she’s serious. She knows Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit La Clique took London’s West End by storm last year and recently won a Laurence Olivier Award for its neo-burlesque carnival of variety arts. She has her sights set on the New York Musical Theatre Festival and the New York International Fringe Festival, and she says there’s interest from producers in the U.K. and Europe. One glance at the startlingly pro, house-rockin’ trailer at www.shinemusical.com/, and you can’t help but hope she and the SHINE burlesquers may truly be onto something big.

“We have some pretty high hopes for it,” admits King, then lets her inner burlesque comedienne come loose: “It’s got a lot of soul—it’s got lots of heart and lots of boobies.”

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