Quinn Lemley may be the hardest working woman in show business. For almost two hours, in “Burlesque to Broadway” she is on-stage continuously singing and dancing. With four other comely showgirls and a nine-piece band, Lemley analyzes, and at the same time recreates, the history of this often misunderstood area of show business. I had already been a fan of the star since I had seen her Rita Hayworth tribute and had interviewed her at the time. She may be a knockout performer and act like a siren on stage but she is also a scholar of our musical theater history.
The evening starts with “Big Spender,” which wasn’t from burlesque but from the Broadway hit “Sweet Charity.” In fact, many of the songs are derived from musicals and movies. What Lemley manages to do is not only to entertain—she also sings “Let Me Entertain You” from “Gypsy,” the classic musical about Gypsy Rose Lee—but she pays tribute to burlesque stars, such as Ann Corio and Blaze Starr. She points out that Lee wrote novels and plays and Corio directed and starred in a show about burlesque that ran for many years on Broadway and in other cities.
As Lemley explains, burlesque featured bumps and grinds (of which the audience sees a multitude in this show) and double-entendre humor (a plethora of jokes you’ve probably heard). However, it was more about the tease than exposure of flesh; you can see more skin on network television. The scantily clad showgirls skillfully use feathers and other tricks to make the audience believe that they are taking it all off, but they never do.
The songs are an eclectic mix, from Rodgers & Hart at their most soulful (“Ten Cents a Dance”) and Cole Porter (“My Heart Belongs to Daddy”) to a tribute to Fanny Brice (who started in burlesque). Lemley sings “My Man” (Brice’s most popular number, which she debuted at the Ziegfield Follies, not during her burlesque period) and “Don’t Rain on my Parade” (from “Funny Girl,” the musical about Brice’s life).
John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” is an electrifying production number, far sexier than the blues master’s own performances of his song. There is a tribute to the James Bond girls (“Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) as well as to Sonny and Cher (“Bang Bang”). Whether she’s belting out a showstopper or crooning a sweet rendition of Irving Berlin’s ballad “What’ll I Do?,” Lemley demonstrates that she is a terrific singer. That she does all of this while dancing energetically made me wonder where she gets her energy. She has a high level production team with the estimable Joseph Hardy as directing consultant and choreographers David Eggers and Merete Muenter.
This may be the only burlesque show in history where the cast album (basically a Lemley CD) is a keeper. The fact that Will Friedwald (a recognized authority on American popular music) wrote the liner notes is a tip-off that it is something special. Then again, it’s not a true burlesque show but a tribute to the form and to its former stars. Some of the history may be familiar from last season’s “The Nance,” which also dealt with Mayor LaGuardia’s shutting down of the burlesque houses. But “Burlesque to Broadway” is not a play but a highly entertaining musical revue. It has a short run (Feb. 5-8 at the Gramercy Theater at 127 E 23rd St.) but the production has been moving around the country and hopefully will come back for a longer stay. In the meantime, you can buy the CD or watch the stunning Lemley and her girls in some highlights from the show on YouTube.