Downtown Cabaret Theatre, Bridgeport
Downtown Cabaret brings back "Sugar Babies" in a lively, toe-tapping production which offers a taste of the highs and lows (and especially "lows") of burlesque. This art form, if one can call it that, commanded the popular American stage for over a century, from the 1840s through the 1960s.
Never mind that it was coarse, tasteless, and politically incorrect. Never mind that randy jokes, strippers, and plenty of corn were the order of the day. And granted it was shameless exploitation of the female body (though, at the same time, it could be seen as women's liberation from confining corsets and burdensome clothes).
The fact is that burlesque was a genre which played a significant role in the development of American show business, launching such luminaries as Bert Lahr, Jackie Gleason, Fanny Brice, Jack Benny and Al Jolson. It was in burlesque that they honed their craft. Though sex was the underlying theme of every show (with jokes which cannot be repeated in a family newspaper), it was a rich source of music and comedy, the groundwork for vaudeville and ultimately the American musical.
We look back on the era with forgiveness and a kind of nostalgia. Was the world ever that simple? And now, under Richard Sabellico's strong direction, "Sugar Babies" pays tribute to the era, while also laughing at itself. Famous routines and stock characters tumble one over the other in rapid succession-"Meet Me Round the Corner" leading the pack, followed by scenes in schoolrooms, doctors' offices, courtrooms. Coarse jokes pile up non-stop.
Kirby Ward, in the lead, sets the tone-and keeps the show on a professional level. He is a song-and-dance man of the first order, and a versatile comedian as well. For instance, playing the judge in a murder trial, he recalls the zaniness of Groucho Marx. (In fact, he borrows shamelessly from Groucho techniques, making them his own.)
Ward gets strong support from his cast, with a particularly effective, but all-too-brief appearance from James Corrothers as the Banjo Man. Paula Leggett Chase, as Ward's co-star, has good comedic skills and a solid singing voice, though her tap dance numbers are a letdown. But when Ward and Chase team up for "McHugh Medley" toward the show's close, it is a high moment. Richard Bell, Frank DeSpigno, and Jack Doyle all give good account of themselves in featured roles, and Jessica Leigh Brown is a delight as the Soubrette.
In short, this is an education in show biz history-and a lively night's entertainment as well, if one is willing to go with the flow and accept that burlesque is what it is. Or was what it was.
-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 19, 2004