Before there was "Sugar Babies," there was "This Was Burlesque." Ann Corio's show has been around for 25 years, and it has not lost its rowdy appeal. It's good to have it back at (where else?) the Variety Arts Theater.
This is a much more authentic re-creation of an old-time burlesque show than "Sugar Babies" was. The latter was actually a vaudeville revue, with burlesque trappings. Miss Corio's show is the real thing, which is to say that it has strippers.
We are not supposed to approve of strippers in 1985, and I don't suppose that we do. Yet, Miss Corio's featured artists don't suggest victimized women, in the sense that Playboy models do. Quite the reverse. Each number presents the image of a woman very much in charge of the situation, a woman marching, so to speak, to her own drummer.
Each stripper has her gimmick, as recommended in "Gypsy." (Jennifer Fox's is that she used to be a man.) And each shows no more skin than she would at the beach. The ritual is the thing, and it is pursued as formally as a Kabuki routine, with the same opportunity for individual expression within the form. In this show, Miss Fox has the best beginning, Miss Janette Boyd the best middle and "Nicolle" the best finale.
But--as Justice Holmes said to his wife--one really goes to burlesque to see the comics. Some of the bits in this show must go back to Aristophanes, or at least to Lou Costello. The constant joke is the size of the comic's "equipment," an indication that burlesque's real subject is sexual anxiety, the male fear of not being able to perform. (Therefore, the stripper has to.)
At any rate, these primitive routines liberate some real belly laughs. For instance, there's the "School Daze" number, with schoolmarm Corio whacking her naughty-boy pupils (Josip Elic, Dexter Maitland) over the head every time they say something disreputable. This number showed up in "Sugar Babies," too, but it's funnier here--maybe because the performers don't try to tell us what a good time they're having. Corio and company just do the bit. Burlesque is tough .
Earlier, there's a Charlie Chaplin sketch that recalls some of Charlie's slyer feats-of-cane. (Charlie Naples is the performer.) Best of all, there's "The Transformer," set in that classic burlesque locale, the doctor's office.
The premise: The doctor (Maitland) has invented an electrical machine that can transfer a patient's disease via electrodes to a dummy. Somehow poor Jimmy Matthews ends up playing the dummy. The first patient who comes into the office has a stammer; so Jimmy gets the stammer. The second patient has the hives; so Jimmy gets the hives. The third patient . . . but you have the idea.
Also on the bill is everybody's favorite tap dancer, Gene Bell. (Don't applaud his train imitation until he tells you to.) There's also a chorus line, suggesting the Rockettes after the first week of basic training. And naturally there is Miss Corio, the show's housemother. After all these years, she still sounds as if she's reading lines. I call that endearing.
Burlesque itself is not especially endearing. This leads to this show's big problem. It is one act too long. After intermission the ribaldry starts to wear thin. One begins to see the essential shamefacedness of the form, which could only have come to flower in a puritan country. One begins to see it as a rite where each sex derides the other in fairly hostile fashion. Rather than celebrate sex, burlesque often projects an enormous resentment of it.
Here, too, Miss Corio's show provides a more honest experience than "Sugar Babies," which pretended that burlesque was just good clean fun. Still, the viewer who is not preparing a thesis in sexual anthropology might do well to end his evening early, with a drink upstairs in the Variety Arts lounge.
'ANN CORIO IN THIS WAS BURLESQUE'
A burlesque show at the Variety Arts Theatre. Choreographed and staged by Bob Street. Musical director Bruce Kirle. Costumes K.W. Shek. Technical director Sue Krogsdale. Settings John Shrum and Associates. With Ann Corio, Josip Elic, Charlie Naples, Dexter Maitland, Frank Vohs, Jimmy Matthews, Dennis Heath, Jannette Boyd, Gene Bell, Nicole, Jennifer Fox and the Burley Cuties. Plays Tuesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 6:30 and 9:30, Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30. Closes Oct. 20. Tickets $15-$19.50. 940 S. Figueroa St. 213-488-1456.