Review of Masters of Vaudeville

Last spring — right up through ABSFest in June — there was so much vaudeville and burlesque activity in town, it seemed like a renaissance. Since then, the scene has been comparatively quiet, at least in terms of full-length evenings. Sure, Asheville Vaudeville mounted its biggest show ever, at ACT, over Halloween weekend, but its new quarterly schedule (as opposed to its original monthly) underscores the reduced visibility.

We’re expecting to see the return of Seduction Sideshow and Bombs Away Cabaret in the new year; in the interim, Madame Onça O’Leary, producer of ABSFest, teamed with Atlanta’s Blast-Off Burlesque to present Masters of Vaudeville at Scandals last Friday. Like ABSFest, it was a fully professional entertainment, followed by an after-party and, the next day, workshops with “ringmaster and international Impresario, Armitage Shanks,” imported from Seattle for the occasion.

The show was short on flesh (Madame Onça’s bare midriff being the most consistently on display), surprisingly long on song, and perhaps not as rich in comedy and variety as the vaudeville moniker would suggest.

It began with Shanks inviting us to “Come to the Circus,” and from the get-go it was clear that he deserves his accolades; there are few MCs as smooth and winning, or with a greater facility for ingratiating themselves with an audience. Seattle’s The Stranger says rightly that Shanks “has a voice like honey-coated gravel,” and calls him, “A Victorian Music Hall barker (with) just the right tone…a sinister and louche presence, who put some sex in the air.” Exactly! With his red-rimmed eyes, goat-like leer, and insinuating demeanor, he took the lion’s share of stage time, singing often and telling tales. He makes a very strong impression.

Blast-Off performers Dickie van Dyke, Sadie Hawkins and Barbilicious offered new routines of note, including Barbilicious’s pleasantly naughty “Bo Peep,” Hawkins’ fine aerial work and a “Crow Jane” fan dance, and van Dyke’s superior “Ed Wood.” Billed as a Drag King, van Dyke sports a moustache and dresses as a man, and frequently creates huge laughs with the resultant gender confusion. “Ed Wood” is one of her wittiest bits, even if it’s not exactly laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a reverse strip (with nothing but a bare back revealed briefly), in which the man-she-appears-to-be removes masculine attire and replaces it with clothes more fittingly female, thereby honoring the notorious titular filmmaker’s predilection for cross-dressing and wearing angora sweaters.

Madame Onça, striking, as always, in black, sang original numbers of her own devising (“Marinated” and “White to Black”) a capella, which is no easy feat. But her voice is rich and sweet, her easy manner while moving through the audience assures you you’re in good hands, and her songs were quite tuneful and smart. If only the sound system had allowed the lyrics to be somewhat more comprehensible…

The sound, in fact, was the evening’s downfall. The acts seemed oddly decorous for this kind of outing, anyway — one missed the more raucous, slapdash energy of earlier Blast-Off appearances — but perhaps the ability really to hear what was said and sung would have made a difference. The bass-heavy, booming mic’d sound would have hampered even the most articulate of performers. Yes, it’s true, one attends such events as much for the delight provided the eye as anything else, but words count, too, and it would have been nice to hear them.

Masters of Vaudeville, presented by Madame Onça O’Leary and Blast-Off Burlesque at Scandals on Dec. 3.


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