Cabaret Red Light stages burlesque 'Nutcracker' at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia

Cabaret Red Light's version of the tale is a mix of dance and comedy based on the dark novella "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King."
Cabaret Red Light's version of the tale is a mix of dance and comedy based on the dark novella "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King."
Posted: December 16, 2010

"If you haven't been issued a white thong, you'll be given one tomorrow," Anna Frangiosa announced to her flurry of Snowflakes in the dressing room of the Painted Bride.

Frangiosa was readying the dancers for Cabaret Red Light's "The Nutcracker," which runs tonight through Sunday.

The aforementioned thongs are part of the tease associated with burlesque theater. The Snowflakes are dressed in white corsets fastened in the back by long white ribbons, and light-blue tutus flecked with blue and white rhinestones, with gloves that look like white leaves up close. But when Frangiosa spins around and bends forward, it becomes abundantly clear why the thongs are necessary. "You need to be able see our butts!" she said, with a laugh.

Philadelphia has a long and storied tradition of "The Nutcracker," the George Balanchine-choreographed version performed to Tchaikovsky's score by the Pennsylvania Ballet each year. Tchaikovsky took his inspiration from Alexandre Dumas' story, which itself was based on the novella "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" by German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Cabaret Red Light returns to the original Hoffmann story for its inspiration.

"[Dumas] dumbs it down in the same way that Disney does with folk tales," said "Nutcracker" writer Peter Gaffney, who also doubles as the eye-patched narrator, Drosselmeyer. "It tames them and takes away the creepy complexity."

Along with the decidedly darker tone and a different name for the ingenue (Hoffmann called his leading lady Marie, not Clara), the original included the story of how the Nutcracker came to be, in a vignette called "The Hard Nut."

Cabaret Red Light retains this story and performs it as a puppet show, which switches back to live performance in the middle and becomes a striptease by Frangiosa - or Annie A-Bomb, Frangiosa's preferred moniker when she's wearing pasties.

Cabaret Red Light's goal was to infuse the bawdy sensibility of burlesque into the well-trodden "Nutcracker" territory. But burlesque isn't supposed to be crude. Rather, it's a hybrid of dance and comedy that is about the tease, rather than the reveal.

The show contains three strip numbers, the last of which is by choreographer Christine Fissler (Lelu Lenore is her burlesque name) as the Sugar Plum Fairy, who saves Marie, played by Ariana Kampanelas, from the evil Rat Man. Fissler, who trained as a dancer at the University of the Arts, where she currently teaches, vanquishes the villainous Rat Man as she strips, slowly peeling off pieces of her costume while en pointe.

Fissler said it was difficult at first to think of "The Nutcracker" outside of the Tchaikovsky context. "The music had to be all original to bring the sexiness and sass to the story because that wasn't really there [in the Tchaikovsky score]," she said, describing Rolf Lakaemper's score, which is a hybrid of jazz and classical music.

"I'm directly competing with Tchaikovsky," said Lakaemper, a robotics professor at Temple by day. Lakaemper said that growing up in Germany, he read Hoffmann's "little horror stories," but didn't see the depth present in "The Nutcracker" until he started discussing it with Gaffney. "I tried a humble approach to keep [the music] mysterious with some outbreaks of childhood joy."

The sass is present, as well. Gaffney's script is sparse - the action moves largely without dialogue - and full of double-entendre, rimshot-ready one-liners.

"[The production] is a more smiling approach to all of this, which is exactly what burlesque theater does," said Lakaemper.

Gaffney and Frangiosa founded the company in 2008 as way to demonstrate that burlesque could be serious theater, and that serious theater needn't be so stuffy. "The Nutcracker" is Cabaret Red Light's largest undertaking yet, and its first at the 260-seat Painted Bride. The creators expect that this holiday show will help fund another season of satirical strips.

Because, as Fissler explained, burlesque adds an element that neither Hoffmann nor Tchaikovsky ever imagined: "Boobies."

Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine St., tonight through Sunday, 8 p.m., $20-$25, 215-925-9914, cabaretredlight.com.

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