Toronto’s Ruby Red Burlesque attempts an ambitious burlesque musical
We may have looked a little odd, even by Toronto standards: a group of burlesque-goers, decked out in slinky body-con finery and club wear, gathering outside a converted church at 7:30pm on a Saturday night, queuing cheerfully to watch Ruby Red Burlesque, a burlesque musical based (rather roughly) on the storyline of The Wizard of Oz. It was cheerful, enthusiastic, and rather grand in scope. Unfortunately, it had a hard time gelling as a piece because there was so much going on.
To be fair, it’s an ambitious undertaking – a burlesque musical. And many of the performers were multi-talented: they sang, danced, and also danced. All of the music was really excellent, and the producer/composer Cameron Fox-Revett deserves tremendous praise for his original musical arrangements and re-productions of some very well-chosen numbers, plus original pieces written just for the show. If there had been a soundtrack available, I would have bought it on the spot.
I also appreciated there some attention was clearly paid to body diversity in the cast. While it wasn’t a tremendous range, there were some thicker dancers present and I, for one, enjoyed them especially.
Where things creaked and groaned a bit was in the book. Some of the dialogue was stilted, and the performers seemed more taxed with their lines than I would have liked. Cues got rushed, and there were more than a few places where the words just weren’t given enough time.
I both understand that between all the dancing and singing rehearsals there must have been relatively less time for the dialogue to come together, and wished that the play part of the evening had been taken more seriously. I might have been the only one with this complaint – much of the audience howled it’s appreciation for the music and dancing and seemed quite unbothered by the clunky lines, which is probably fair at burlesque. Still, if it’s a proper musical, I wanted it to flow like one and not just a series of excuses to watch pretty people dance about.
Much of the costuming was also very interesting and/or quite charming. I didn’t understand the choice to have all the boys wearing dance belts to smooth and flatten their crotches – is this not burlesque? Are we only supposed to ogle the girls? In a show with a drag Glinda and her two adorably fey minions, there was a strange tension between a gay sensibility and a decidedly heteronormative choice to display the girls down to their pasties but keep the boys looking like Ken dolls. I also couldn’t help but wish that Dorothy’s (Paige Murray) tremendously appealing final number stayed solo and spoke to her own awakening and desire. Instead, the Wizard shows up in the middle and adds nothing but a male gaze that approves her. I would have liked it better if the number had taken a more readably empowering turn.
Overall, this is an enjoyable burlesque experience but not really a fully formed musical. Still, for an audience member who wants to see a some skin and listen to some very cool tunes, while not having anything seem too lewd (you could easily bring your cool auntie and not be embarrassed by the goings-on), Ruby Red Burlesque is likely to be a rewarding evening.
- Ruby Red Burlesque plays at the Randolph Theatre, 736 Bathurst St, until 26 August.
- Performances are at 8pm on weekdays, with 7:30 and 10:30 shows on Friday and Saturday nights.
- Tickets range from $20-$27 dollars, in advance or at the door.
- Tickets may be had online, or at the door.
photo of Paige Murray provided by the company.