"Who doesn't love titties?" says a member of the audience at Mardi Gras Burlesque, when asked what attracted him to the show.
On stage, a black corseted female dancer is twirling her tassels in hypnotic circles, casting a seductive spell on the audience. To her right, a live three-piece jazz band keeps time, punctuating a particularly titillating gesture with a cymbal crash. Just as the last silky item of clothing falls in a heap to the floor, a cast member steps in to swaddle the dancer in a gossamer white robe.
The tiered room is dark, lit largely by candlelight, and the 120-or-so guests sitting at the tables take sips of wine, beer or booze to help get in the spirit of things. There's some nervous laughter at first, but as the show goes on – and the clothes come off – a sort of rhythm takes hold and the show starts to hit its stride.
Presented in the lower-level cabaret at Pickwick & Frolic, the sold-out show is the 20th performance since the production kicked off in the fall. The fact that it's still running is proof that yes, everybody loves titties, but also that live burlesque is back in a big way. Recent performances at the Beachland Ballroom – and indeed many smaller venues – are further confirmation that "everything old is new again."
The truth of the matter is: People are starved for something new to try – even if it is decades old. That's precisely why this subterranean space at the far end of Fourth Street is loaded with guests who had absolutely no idea what the hell they were signing up for.
"How many times can you go to the same, old restaurant, sit at the bar and order food and drinks," muses Scott Herman, a first-timer who came from the 'burbs with a large and tipsy birthday party. "We have no idea what to expect, but at least it's something different to do – something unique in Cleveland."
Since opening his adult-themed funhouse 10 years ago, Pickwick owner Nick Kostis has lived by one guiding principal: "If somebody else is already doing it, why bother?" The consummate showman, Kostis is on a single-minded mission to entertain – and you don't do that by serving up the same cold platter of stale laughs. That's why he is always tinkering, fiddling and gunning for top billing – all in an everlasting effort to keep butts in the seats.
Mardi Gras Burlesque is another in a long line of original Pickwick & Frolic productions. Unlike most venues, Pickwick builds its own shows from the stage up. Games shows, murder mysteries, midnight martini shows – and yes, Mardi Gras Burlesque – all are homegrown products courtesy of Kostis and director Michael Rogaliner.
"We're not trying to pretend that this is Broadway," says Kostis, who works the room like a boss. "It has an organic nature because it comes from us and we are Clevelanders. You're not going to see this anyplace else."
Even if you've enjoyed burlesque elsewhere, these performances stray wildly from the usual formula. A typical burlesque show features a disconnected string of solo performers – one after the other – doing a striptease to canned music. This production incorporates elements of burlesque, cabaret and vaudeville, all of it accompanied by a seamless live band.
"I'm always a fan of live music," says audience member Marty Smith. "Had this been recorded music instead of live, it would be an entirely different show, and not in a good way."
For comic relief, a trio of male audience members is pulled onto the stage for some requisite grilling. Other segments involve polling the room for improvisational contributions, which are rolled into the performance. All of it is presided over by the show's sultry frontwoman Audi Sharif (Lady Voodoo).
Of course, audience participation can go one of two ways – and one of those ways is the opposite of funny.
"This is live theater, so the participation sections can either be brilliant and hysterical or...," says Rogaliner. "Some crowds are more tipsy than others."
Following the show, many of the guests and performers take the short stroll over to Kevin's Martini Bar, where they socialize over cold beers and cocktails. Danielle Muad'Dib, a dancer and performer in the show, seems genuinely pleased by its success and longevity. In her 25 years on the boards, she's never been more optimistic about her vocation.
"A lot of people are becoming more comfortable with their sexuality," she says. "But it's not just burlesque; live entertainment in all forms is coming back. People are bored sitting at home in front of their computer. They want to go out and experience live theatre."
That's music to the ears of Nick Kostis, who says that Mardi Gras Burlesque will continue running until it doesn't.
"Everything is open-ended," he says. "We run them for as long as we have an audience for them."