From Gaslight to Spotlight 11.7.09

gaslightthumb.jpgFrom Gaslight to Spotlight was a one-weekend tribute to the glory days of the Gaslight Square club district in the ‘50s and ‘60s, presented by Lola and friends.

Gaslight Theater, St. Louis
If you live in St. Louis, you’ve no doubt been exposed to a woman dedicated to exposing herself, burlesque revivalist Lola van Ella. Every week she corrals a group of like-minded gals for a variety of burlesque performances, and the enthusiasm with which she presents her mostly naked self and similarly un-garbed friends is catching. She has a real sweetness, and in this fucked-up world, her nostalgia for old-time stripping plays as innocent fun. (If you’re prudish enough to think that burlesque revival is naughty, just cross the Mississippi River to Brooklyn, Ill., where strip-club dancers actually let you touch the merchandise – it’s a different order of fun entirely.)
From Gaslight to Spotlight was a one-weekend tribute to the glory days of the Gaslight Square club district in the ‘50s and ‘60s, presented by Lola and friends. The variety show referenced Gaslight Square with a taste of Beat poetry, go-go dancers, and jazz, but it went all the way back to the earlier days of vaudeville and burlesque, too, so really, it was a hodgepodge of tributes.
A skilled five-piece house band—sax, guitar, bass, drums, and keys—took the stage, and voluptuous jazz singer “LuLu La Toosh,” aka Christy Simmons, launched into smoky standard “Fever.” Her pipes are able, if unremarkable, but each of her musical interludes suffered from having to compete with the other fare, odd comedy and half-naked girls. It would be a hard row to hoe for even a dynamic stage presence.
The comedy came courtesy of Chicago’s Oona Tramps, a troupe that occupies the singular niche of doing silent physical comedy a la Charlie Chaplin onstage. To be honest, they are the reason I sought out Gaslight, and their first vignette was a hoot. A male and female actor emerged in whiteface. One of them held up a sign that said “Flea Circus.” You knew exactly what old gags were coming, but that didn’t diminish them. An imaginary flea zooms around – to the sound of a clarinet, and then a kazoo – performing tricks communicated by the reactions of the actors. When the “flea” plays a small piano, and, after one disastrous stunt, is laid to rest in a tiny coffin, it’s priceless. A second sketch, which used nonsensical mumbling as a comedic technique, did not fare as well.
The burlesque included the famous fan dance as interpreted by Gogo McGregor, and a striptease by Greta Garter as “Evelyn West and her $50,000 Treasure Chest.” Lola’s protégés, the Bon Bons, took the stage in matching corsets and pretended to drink from liquor bottles. At the close of their wild, high-energy dance, they pretended to pass out in nothing but pasties and G-strings. The final strip-down featured Lola herself in a long blonde wig as Lily St. Cyr. She disrobed and descended into a bathtub with water in it, for a sensual, seductive scrub.
Other acts included "Pyromorphic,” who put flaming torches into their mouths, and twirled them around to that racing cartoon music by Raymond Scott. LuLu donned a big blonde wig, marabou dress, and a cigarette in a long holder to become Phyllis Diller. Her wild, Diller-eque laugh was funnier than those old jokes, though.
The remainder of the interludes with the Oona Tramps was, disappointingly, not about theatre but about music. They played a catchy tune on guitar, banjo, washboard, and cornet, and led a call-and-response round of “Minnie the Moocher” that the crowd enjoyed. Their joyous “Flea Circus” sketch was the high point.
If you like half-naked girls teasing and reveling in the hungry male gaze, it was a fine evening. If you like commedia dell’arte, Charlie Chaplin, and clowning, too, though, you may have left a bit hungry.

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