(UPDATE: This post now includes an expanded look at the show, which concludes its run Monday (Feb. 8) night. For show details, click here.)
LadyBEAST’s revamping of the Mardi Gras-timed circus show, “Vaude D’Gras,” took over the old Bywater Happyland Theater house on Sunday (Feb. 7) with a rousing ensemble performance that included acts by burlesque performer GoGo McGregor, opera-singing clown Guglielmo, knife-thrower Madame Daggers, whip-cracking/gun-slinging Clay Mazing, aerialist Sarah Stardust, and LadyBEAST herself.
They all performed to the music of the Vaude D’Gras Band, including Sarah Jacques.
Building on the strength of their previous two “Cirque du Gras” shows, also timed for Carnival, this troupe has an easy chemistry that’s only buttressed by the addition of popular New Orleans burlesque and sideshow performer GoGo McGregor. (She also works with LadyBEAST and Liza Rose on what will be a quarterly Cirque Copine show at One Eyed Jacks, which debuted in January.)
While last year’s theme had a kind of post-apocalyptic vibe, this year’s show was sort of pre-apocalyptic — the notion being that vaudeville was being threatened by increasingly modern forms of entertainment (movies, TV, the Internet), and it’s up to the troupe to up its game to keep the customers coming on in. On this chilly Sunday night, the disheveled Happyland Theater, once a home for vaudeville and then movies in Bywater, seemed an apt setting. Almost the entire interior was a study in patchwork coverage, from the flooring to the side walls to the shutters that lined the back wall of the unused balcony. Artisans pushed trinkets, including vintage hats, and most of the modest-size audience showed up in period attire. With no heat available, it indeed felt like the lights were about to go out on vaudeville, but for the efforts of this rag-tag troupe. (If only the one woman sitting near me, with her vintage coat and floral headdress, could have gotten more into the spirit of the proceedings and not texted on her phone half the time.)
Guglielmo, as he’s done in the past, proves a genial emcee, growling and barking his lines. He and Clay Mazing make for a fun comedic duo, especially in the introduction, with Clay Mazing constantly winking at the audience using period references (“Can I bum a fag”?) to underscore how times, and language, have changed.
They’re in constant survival mode with the “show,” especially troubled by the diva/star GoGoMcGregor, who is restless with vaudeville and wants to gain her fame on the silver screen. She spends much of the show serving as the cynical counterpoint to LadyBEAST, who as aerialist and escape artist seeks to preserve all that’s good about vaudeville.
Much as it was with Cirque Copine’s “In Wonderland” at One Eyed Jacks, it’s when LadyBEAST and Sarah Stardust take flight that “Vaude D’Gras” does the same; their aerial performances, together and separately, turn the shabby Happyland into a little palace of magic. While it’s perhaps best to leave the details vague, LadyBEAST’s escape trick at the show’s end is also a moment to behold, if for no other reason the degree of difficulty.
Similarly, the troupe’s greatest strength is when everyone’s onstage creating mayhem; while some individual performances are good but not often great, their collective energy, spirt and humor thrives in ensemble delivery. GoGo McGregor especially excels in these moments; though she’s one of the city’s most popular burlesque performers, and delivered a solid fan dance here, she’s an even better comic talent and wise-cracker, getting her bitch on with every single member of the cast. (Watching them break character with her one-liners is a particular thrill.)
Guglielmo is similarly versatile, whether he’s emceeing or singing arias or performing familiar sideshow stunts such as getting a tattoo on his ass and then a nipple pierced. This was a highlight of last year’s show. (Afterward, he combined the two by performing the Neopolitan classic “O sole mio” before morphing into Elvis and transitioning it seamlessly into “It’s Now or Never.”) The capper was a double busting of a cinder block on his stomach along with GoGo McGregor (with LadyBEAST and Clay Mazing doing the honors.)
Clay Mazing possesses a similar charm, even when not every one of his whip-cracking tricks hits the mark. My only real wish was to have seen a little more of the knife-throwing antics of Madame Daggers, who spent most of her time playing violin with the excellent Vaude D’Gras Band (led by Sarah Jacques, who also performs in the Cirque Copine band.)
“Vaude D’Gras” could use a little tightening of the performances, but it remains a glorious celebration of both the circus-arts talent in the city and the chemistry and spirit of an ensemble that plays well together and off one another. Monday night is the last chance to see them before, like Carnival itself, it vanishes for another year.