New York City’s burlesque scene has seen an upswing in popularity in recent years. But amid the growing crowd, it’s harder than ever to figure out which shows are worth your time and money.
One show that’s ever-changing but will always hit the mark is The Sophisticates, which plays twice monthly at Chelsea’s Metropolitan Room (34 W. 22nd St.). Although the rotating performers are at the top of their game — offering not only tantalizing dances but also a fair amount of “cheek” in every meaning of the word — the highlight of the show is often emcee Bastard Keith. While he sings and does comedy bits between acts, his best moments are often unscripted asides (“You just skipped in stilettos on carpet; that’s a recipe for a broken ankle, young lady!”) And it just so happens that he also co-founded The Sophisticates with his wife, headliner Madame Rosebud. We spoke with them both — separately — following a particularly scintillating performance.
You called the show "elegant, glamorous filth" — are those the best words to describe burlesque?
BK: Oh, I say all sorts of things. But that sounds about right. That's us in a nutshell. When the show falters, it's usually because I get the balance wrong: not elegant enough, too filthy. But you'd be surprised how much filth you can get away with when you've got the mix right. Good filth is respectful of its audience, particularly of women. I've always wanted to stay away from the sort of smug, smoking jacket boys club atmosphere that comes all too easily in burlesque. The male gaze can suck it. This show is about revering women (and, when we have boylesque performers, about appreciating and promoting male beauty).
MR: That describes our brand. Not all burlesque is elegant/glamorous/filthy; some artists or shows are decidedly playing with higher, lower or even more out-there themes. We love that about burlesque. Our show is just a dirty sexy laugh riot ... and we like it like that!
You perform twice monthly at Metropolitan Room — do you have a rotating cast? Can the audience expect to see a new show every time?
BK: We have a completely new show every time. Since we have such a large and talented rotating cast of performers, it's never the same show twice. Even if we had the same lineup, the acts would be different. As host, it's really incredible to watch. I'm consistently amazed at the depth and breadth of talent I get to work with. It's humbling.
MR: We have a large rotating cast of extraordinary performers, including dancers from all over the world. We always advertise the lineup so that diehard burlesque fans can read about the girls, learn where they are from and what their unique style is. We have faithful audience members who in their own special way are now cast members too, since the show is interactive. We enjoy drawing them into our web of debauchery.
Booze and burlesque: At Metropolitan Room they go hand-in-hand. Is that always the case?
BK: I don't think I've ever seen a burlesque show at a dry venue. I'm sure it's possible, and it MUST happen somewhere, but I've never seen it. I just think that people going to burlesque are looking to cut loose a little, and sometimes a drink helps with that. I'll often have a nip of scotch before singing. But of course that's a completely technical vocal thing — obviously.
MR: At our show, the bar staff makes mean cocktails. Or so I have been told by some legendary New York bartenders who are show patrons!
What's the worst and/or funniest mishap that's ever happened during a show?
BK: Oh, God. We didn't have a performer's song on the show CD, which was my responsibility, and we didn't know until well into the show. Like when I was introducing her (these days we do lots of pre-show checks; amazing how much I've learned by screwing up). So I had to vamp for several minutes with increasing desperation while she retrieved it on her iPhone. Luckily, me being on the verge of a nervous breakdown got a lot of laughs. I think I was about to melt down and go fully primal when the DJ finally had everything set up. Of course, the audience participation is a unique and wonderful sort of disaster every time, but that's the way we like it.
MR: An audience member bested Keith by one-upping him during the game show bit [where patrons get onstage to win a free drink]. She gave an incredibly erotic reading of "Hamlet" in perfect verse — and shocked everyone in the room!
It seems like you have a core cast of ladies with whom you regularly work, and they all have a very unique style. But what's your favorite act?
BK: I couldn't possibly say. It would be unfair and rude to rank them. I can tell you that there's an act with special sentimental meaning to me: Peekaboo Pointe does a sailor act to "Nobody Does It Better" that is so epically, crushingly, luminously great that Rosebud and I asked her to perform it at our wedding. It's so upbeat and lovely and hilarious and lewd and perfect, and I've never seen it not destroy. So I can't say I have a "favorite," but I can say that act means a lot to me.
MR: Truth be told, that is too difficult to answer. We choose each dancer because they wow us all in totally different, but complementary, ways. One of my personal favorite moments is actually a bit our stage kitten [the girl who picks up stray garments between acts] does in the show, where she showcases a unique talent for a very sexy and funny imitation. I cannot say what — you have to come see!
Anything you'd like to add?
BK: This show doesn't exist without my wife. Rosebud is the greatest creative force and collaborator imaginable. I'm grateful every day that we get to do this together.
MR: My husband and I incredibly proud to have built this show together as equals, and to have created an opportunity to showcase one another and artists we love to the world. We don't have babies as a couple. We have burlesque.
For more NYC entertainment news, follow T. Michelle Murphy on Twitter: @TMichelleMurphy