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Burlesque

Steven Antin

Adam Paulden & Jason Haigh-Ellery, Sue Gilad & Larry Rogowsky, Steven Antin and Christina Aguilera 

Opera House, Manchester

June 13-29, 2024; 2hrs 30mins

(the show returns to Manchester October 3-November 2)


Jackie Burns and the cast of Burlesque. All pics: Johan Persson
Jackie Burns and the cast of Burlesque. All pics: Johan Persson

Banner showing a three and a half star rating

Burlesque the Musical is a new show based on the film of the same name. Audiences in Manchester are quite privileged: it opens here and returns in October, with only a stop in Glasgow in-between before a possible London run.

The show, directed by Nick Winston, has ready-made fans: those who loved the musical, which stars Christina Aguilera and Cher. The show, which includes extra songs written by its two stand-out stars Jess Folley and Todrick Hall, remains relatively faithful to the film.

Ali, a small town girl with a big voice, is almost alone in the world and having lost her adoptive mother, heads for the big city, New York, and the hope of finding both herself and her birth mother. Arriving at the address she’s been given, she finds Tess, the owner of a struggling burlesque club, who belittles her so much that she is unable to reveal their relationship. Ali takes a job as a waitress at the club and a sofa to sleep on from kindly colleague Jackson – whose musical composition talent is also hidden – as well as a lesson in the distinction between burlesque and striptease from Sean, Jess’s right-hand man, played with warmth, sassy exhibitionism and impeccable timing by the immensely-talented Todrick Hall, who is the show's kingpin.

Jess Folley as lead Ali Rose is largely comfortable on stage and shines strongly when the plot demands that she unleash her vocal talents.  

Jackie Burns isn’t given quite enough to work on as Tess, the rather unlikable club owner, manager and secret mother, until the final scenes. Strong singing skills from George Maguire as Vince, Tess’s scheming ex-husband and club co-owner, assist in making an unlikeable character an entertaining one. Both Michael Mather as would-be composer Jackson and Nina Ann Nelson as Nikki, the initial ousted star at the burlesque club, show talent in imbibing their rather cliche-ridden roles with some interest. 

The music is strong, but perhaps lacking in variety, with a few stand-out numbers - including the one by Hall detailing the distinction between striptease and burlesque.

There’s nothing new or modern about the story. It’s hackneyed; no fear of plot spoilers here. More concerning is the lack of storytelling through dialogue. Though often a weak spot in musicals, the instant emotion, the lack of explanation and almost total absence of empathy initially make almost all the characters unlikable, except for Sean. Everyone seems to dislike everyone else on sight; there’s no forgiveness, just cattiness.  

Eventually, the hard work of the cast pulls things through and there is some relief when all is revealed, the club is saved, and the bad people are either redeemed or punished. All is as it should be, and the show receives the expected standing ovation.

There are many strengths in the show. The orchestra is superb. The dancing, often the greatest strength, is highly enjoyable, with plenty of work for a talented group of male dancers whose coordination skills rarely miss, and are likely to develop to perfection as the show matures.  

The women’s dancing is highly sexualised, as you would expect. Some of the stronger dance numbers - Watusi being the main example - enhance the entertainment by downplaying this slightly and upping the variety of moves and rhythm.

The dance style and costumes have led to some brief but short-lived comparisons to other musicals. But this lightweight tale is not on the same page as either Cabaret or Chicago

The glitter, high level camp, the star-penned numbers, and the film‘s popularity among certain audiences guarantee the show a following. 

Doubtless everythig will have sharpened on its return to Manchester in October, and I hope the audibility of lyrics improves. Most musicals I have seen recently have scored highly here, but with this one I struggled on too many occasions. I would have particularly welcomed greater clarity on one of Sean‘s early numbers. Everyone on stage is horrified to hear that Ali had initially thought she was in a strip club, so Sean provides his potted history of burlesque's history, main characters, intentions and themes. Since burlesque’s inception in the 1800s, and particularly since its revival in the 1990s, debate has been running about how far, if at all, the two genres differ. The jury in my head is still out, but I also question whether what we see in this show is representative of the challenging, radical and somewhat mocking nature claimed for true burlesque. Many would argue that is of little importance; that the show is just a bit of fun. 

I found it hard to see very much in the way of female empowerment in this tale. Yes, the business is owned by a woman and the main stars are the women, probably with good earnings. But I didn’t feel that the characters portrayed are able to make any choices that don't suit the male customers' gaze. Perhaps I’m being too picky.

Would I want to take a mid-teens girl to see this show? Probably not. A mid-teens boy? Almost certainly not – unless it was part of a much larger and deeper conversation about choices and responsibilities. But of course there’s also room on stage for a bit of light fluffiness, and for shows that don’t suit a younger audience. 


More info and tickets here





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