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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Leadville or Bust & The Black Box Burlesque, Denver

Leadville or Bust & The Black Box BurlesqueThe lusty, lamented art form, mostly missing from the Denver landscape for 40 years until Michelle Baldwin created her own company here a decade ago, is now being resurrected in a bigger and more lasting way at the New Denver Civic's cabaret theater.

Baldwin is partnering with busty Broadway-caliber crooner Reyna Von Vett to bring back a touch of class, a touch of sass and a touch of . . . oh, you're not going to get me to say it!

Von Vett and Baldwin are presenting two distinct burlesque shows in tandem, using mostly the same chorus girls. They're appropriately pushing this bawdy double-header as "Come for the tease . . . stay for the strip."

The more dignified and family-friendly (and not surprisingly, less attended) is Von Vett's sophisticated early show. "Leadville or Bust," termed a "burlesque operetta," is both a tribute to Denver's history and an accurate re-creation of burlesque shows circa 1870-1920. Von Vett and her Hell's Belles (Jessica Hindsley, Teri English and Jill Nacke), fine singer-dancers all, perform about 30 songs from the era.

It's mostly a cabaret showcase for the considerable vocal talents of Von Vett, who brings to life an array of strong women making do in tough environs. She sings rueful ballads of fallen and feisty broads; together they perform more upbeat girl-power numbers like "I Wanna Be Bad," "If It Don't Fit, Don't Force It" and "You Naughty, Naughty Men."

Audiences will snicker at innocently suggestive songs about hot dogs and hot nuts; historians will be fascinated by the opening tourism ditty, "Denver Town," and everyone will recognize classics like "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Ragtime Cowboy Joe."

They've been arranged with authenticity and great harmonic care by Wendell Vaughn, and set to live piano by Jeff Jenkins. It's all made more remarkable by the dizzyingly ornate (and handmade by Von Vett) costumes that leave most of the skin to the imagination.

Then there is Baldwin's more free-form (and freely falling) late show, "The Black Box Burlesque." Now this is what most people expect from burlesque. Hosted by Von Vett's alter ego, Cora Vette, it's a series of coy stripteases and really, really bad, off-color jokes. The Bells are joined by Adrianne Hampton and Margaret Skokan, using fun pseudonyms like Ms. P. Coque and Sarah Bellum. But in case you're wondering, boys, put your tongues back in your mouths. There is no full nudity — just plenty of creatively tassel-covered boobies.

The late show, which will more freely rotate among performers and acts over time, makes plain why burlesque was once such a popular amusement.

Titillation never goes out of style.

The Civic's black-box theater has been transformed into an ornate period saloon- hall by Al J. Varney, with original retro artwork by Sotirios Livaditis. Both shows are complemented by vintage video. One misgiving is that, for all her vocal chops, Von Vett is still finding her comfort zone as a late-night emcee.

Taken together (there is a discount for attending both shows), a naughty but nice night at the Civic will mean feathers, garters, shimmying, contortion, can-can dancing and tassel-twirling.

And while burlesque evolved as a snickering parody of popular art forms of the day like opera and vaudeville, what might be lost here amid all of this, ahem, stimulation, is an appreciation for the vocal talent and physical agility it takes to effectively perform it.

In the end, burlesque is a gigantic celebration of the female form, in all its forms.

This new creative venture adds a needed infusion of attitude into Denver's night life. It's a fun way for Denverites to experience their city's past — in the flesh, so to speak. And for those with out-of- town guests wanting some of the same, it'll be a no-brainer.

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