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Cabaret New Burlesque Critique Essay

Ali Rose never had a lot going for her as a kid—her dad ran off and her mom died. But now that she's grown, she's ready to make her mark. So she quits her small-town Iowa barkeep job, gathers together what little cash she has and boards a bus headed for Hollywood.

Unfortunately, Sunset Boulevard doesn't exactly welcome the star-struck girl with open arms. She's just another pretty blonde on a street full of pretty blondes. But then the neon shimmer of a burlesque club catches her eye. And everything changes.

Garter belts, bustiers, thigh-high stockings and sparkly g-strings. This is a part of the world, a colorful if somewhat shady side of performing that Ali has never imagined before. She wrangles a job serving drinks in the place and starts studying the performers. Each long-legged step, wrist flick and hip thrust becomes her passion.

The club's owner, Tess, tries to smile at the young wannabe's enthusiasm, but she just can't see this girl ever making it up on the stage. And she says so. Emphatically. Of course, words won't dampen Ali's spirit. She just needs the right chance to prove she has what it takes. And she knows she has a secret weapon: All the other girls lip-sync to the tracks as they strut and shimmy. Ali can sing.

Forget that. She can wail.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a cowboy or a conventioneer: Nobody’s looking for a steady relationship out of a Las Vegas topless show. But two have lasted longer than many marriages.

There’s new respect for longevity this year, when many shows ran out of it. “Fantasy” recently celebrated 17 years at Luxor, and the Flamingo’s “X Burlesque” is not far behind at 14 (if you allow that one was called “Midnight Fantasy” and the other “X” in the early going).

You think their genetic link to the hardwiring of the human male insulates them from whatever disease is affecting all these other shows? Don’t forget four other casino topless shows (two from “X Burlesque” producers Angela and Matt Stabile), as well as strip-club craziness beyond the casino walls.

No, these two are doing something specifically right. What’s their secret? Read on, cowboy.

These beloved institutions have at least a couple of things in common: Old-Vegas comic relief, and the boot-scootin’ cowgirl hat and Daisy Dukes sequence that seems to be written into the lease.

But they are more different than their narrow genre would make you think. The two shows play in very specific and distinct rooms and have found the right tone to fit them.

“Fantasy” is in an actual theater, the rows of seats creating a perceptual distance from the stage. It’s up to the big personalities of singing host Lorena Peril and the clowning of comedian Sean E. Cooper to close that gap.

Peril has been in “Fantasy” before and come back, which doesn’t fend off a static sense of sameness any more than Cooper proclaiming he’s “been on this show awhile now” (since 2000, with a few gaps) and then comparing his job to “a Tiger Woods training camp” to prove it.

But Peril simply belongs here. She works this crowd with bilingual banter, tossing off jokes about how “the dude sections are always really quiet” (very true for anyone who’s been to a crazy-loud male revue to notice the contrast) or laughing at one of her own jokes so hard she announces, “I just snorted. It’s on now!”

The “Fantasy” focus on personality even reaches into the dance numbers, which may explain why the gymnastic work of Sonya Sonnenberg seems to dominate more of them than ever. When the dancers cast their sultry personas aside for the closing throw-down to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop This Feeling,” the curtain comes down with a kind of “real” feeling that’s refreshing for a topless show.

“X Burlesque” goes the other direction. Only one person talks — comedian Nancy Ryan, with raunchy-fun insult crowd work — and the rest is all a bombardment of the naughty dance numbers promised in the title. The six dancers get solos, but the moody lighting and the fast trot of the whole thing makes it harder for them to emerge as individuals.

It works, though, because “X” plays in a low-slung cabaret with a pod stage and stripper pole, putting most dudes nice and close.

The show has its share of greatest hits. Tiffany Molyneux is the latest to make “Would You …?,” an obscure track by Touch and Go, an instant download for anyone who has seen this show over the years.

But “X” seems more aggressive than “Fantasy” in a forward push for new ideas, straining the production capabilities of the small venue to its limits with projection mapping and even a snow machine. “Dream On” becomes a less trite song selection when you add a David Lynchian video and put Caroline McClain in pointe shoes.

Right from the start, with black-light trumpets “floating” to the neo-retro “The Buzz” by New World Sound and Timmy Trumpet, you realize burlesque can indeed have one stiletto heel in the past and one in the present.

Both shows have been around so long, you might think only the dancers must change. Not true either. Meeka Onstead has been in “X” for years now, just like Sonnenberg in “Fantasy.” After watching each do their pole solos, you must proclaim, “Viva longevity.”

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournl.com and follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.