The gloriously-naff/high-glam aesthetic of Dita Von Teese’s burlesque is best summed up by one set piece: in her second striptease on her Australian tour, she’s dressed head to toe in a sparkling pink cowgirl costume in front of a plush pink mechanical bull. Suddenly, a tumbleweed rolls across the stage.
But this is no ordinary tumbleweed: this is a tumbleweed full of sparkling diamantes, and perhaps even jewels and crystals — nothing is too good for Ms Von Teese.
Von Teese’s mischievously-named Strip Strip Hooray! has arrived in Australia to plenty of fanfare and massive sold out theatres. It features the reigning Queen of Burlesque in four different striptease acts and a hand-picked selection of her favourite burlesque acts (including the magnificently endowed Natasha Estrada, the glamorous and vivacious Perle Noir, and the one male act Jett Adore).
She opens the show with her famous Swarovski crystal-encrusted martini glass routine — there’s enough sparkle on this one stage to rival the Sydney Mardi Gras. After removing layer after layer (although there’s always one very small layer left on), she climbs into the glass and cavorts about, splashing the martini across the stage, spinning and even sponging herself off with a green olive-shaped sponge.
She also performs as a caged bird and as a geisha in a rather extraordinary (if slightly uncomfortable) finale of Orientalism.
Across her four acts, she channels very different characters, and her supporting artists are a diverse bunch. But it occasionally feels a little same-same. There are many different ways to skin a cat, but really only one way for Von Teese to remove one of her teeny-tiny corsets (loosen the laces, then unclip the front).
Von Teese’s costumes are undeniably spectacular — glamorous and meticulously constructed — and her background as a dancer allows her to physically inhabit a range of women (and look like sex personified while riding a mechanical bull).
Overseeing the proceedings is MC Murray Hill (the drag king persona of Betsey Gallagher), who is as much the star of the show as Von Teese. Known as the “hardest working middle-aged man in showbusiness”, Hill harkens back to the glory days of burlesque and variety, while subverting the format and the performance of gender which is at the core of all burlesque.
The vast majority of the audience for burlesque is now female, which is a massive change from the 1930s and ’40s when it was invented to tease and arouse men. It’s a bit of a surprise to hear a thousand women vocalising every time one of the performers removes an item of clothing, but there’s an interesting reclamation of a woman’s sensuality as much by the women in the audience as those on stage.
Plus, Hill is just a hell of a lot of fun, taking the piss out of masculinity while drawing the audience into this world of glamour, low comedy and fabulous games. There’s even a dance-off with audience members, which produced some pretty surprising results at the first Adelaide show.
If anybody can make the intimate art of burlesque work in a 2000-seat theatre, it’s the Queen of Burlesque, and the production values are certainly high enough to justify such a big audience. The show just might’ve felt more outrageous and involving in a slightly smaller theatre.
But this is a night out which delivers everything it promises, and keeps its audience enthralled for two and a half hours. It’s quite the treat.