Burlesque the Musical

Steven Antin, with additional material by Kate Wetherhead and music and lyrics by Christina Aguilera, Sia, Diane Warren, Jess Folley and Todrick Hall
Adam Paulden and Jason Haigh-Ellery, Sue Gilad and Larry Rogowsky, Steven Antin and Christina Aguilera
Opera House, Manchester

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Ensemble Credit: Johan Persson
Jackie Burns and Ensemble Credit: Johan Persson
Jess Folley and Ensemble Credit: Johan Persson
Jess Folley and Jackie Burns Credit: Johan Persson
Jess Folley and Michael Mather Credit: Johan Persson
Nina Ann Nelson Credit: Johan Persson

Approaching Manchester’s Opera House, there is the urge to check you’ve arrived at the right venue. The moody black and white cast photographs outside the venue are in the style of the famous shots used to promote Chicago. But then Burlesque the Musical is a show that does not hesitate to borrow from past greats.

Hick from the sticks Ali Rose (Jess Folley) discovers, following the death of her mother, she was adopted and sets out to meet her birth mother, who, it turns out, runs a failing New York burlesque club. Tess (Jackie Burns) has an aversion to reading her mail and so is unaware of Ali’s identity, so the pair get off on the wrong foot. Unable to identify herself to Tess, Ali accepts a waitressing job at the burlesque. However, when the star attraction and heavy drinker Nikki (Nina Ann Nelson) sabotages the recorded backing track to which the dancers perform, Ali reveals raw natural singing talent which may save the club—much to the dismay of Tess’s villainous ex-husband Vince (George Maguire), who would prefer it to fail.

Although the show starts with the grim urban noise of traffic and car alarms, director Nick Winston (who also choreographs) sets a light, comedic tone to the extent it is a wonder the cast can sing with tongues stuck so far into their cheeks—life isn’t fair, we’re advised, it’s fabulous. "It’s a drag," proclaims a character in drag, and Ali is summed up as Beyoncé in Taylor Swift’s body. The main beneficiary of this light-hearted approach is Todrick Hall, whose far-from-sinister master of ceremonies steals pretty much every scene.

The light approach, however, drains any tension from the show. Members of the cast are visible in the background posing on balconies watching events unfold, but the effect is that of an extended family keeping an eye on each other rather than any menace. Nina Ann Nelson has a stunning voice and real comic talent (vamping through "A Guy What Takes His Time"), but she certainly isn’t a calculating villain. George Maguire enjoys playing a panto villain too much to be taken seriously as a threat.

Nick Winston’s choreography shows the influence of Bob Fosse, and not just the contorted and combative style—actual routines look very familiar. The cast drape themselves over a lowered lighting rig as if getting ready to sing "(Hey) Big Spender", and Jackie Burns’s closing dance number is very like "Nowadays" from Chicago. Naturally, bowler hats are popular. The influences are not limited to the dance routines—the song "Big" brings to mind Madonna’s "Vogue".

However, Burlesque the Musical transcends the thin plot with superb vocals and gobsmacking spectacle. Jess Folley gives a spine-tinglingly good vocal performance, and her duets with the equally talented Jackie Burns raise the roof. Nina Dunn’s astonishing video designs range from gorgeous black and white cityscapes to stadium-quality concert footage.

The dominant mood is, however, simply fun. The dance routine to "Wagon Wheel Watusi" has no apparent connection to the plot; it may have been included simply as an excuse to show the cast dancing "The Watusi". "Big" is a ridiculously over-the-top dance routine featuring a full-cast costume change mid-song and concluding with Todrick Hall rising above the stage on a gigantic shoe. It makes no sense but is a joy to watch.

Burlesque the Musical is a triumph for Manchester as well as the company. Years ago, the city would have received a show like this as a revival, after the original principals had left, the ensemble had been cut back and the sets become worn and shaky. To not only attract such a quality show in its full pomp but to generate enough support to call it back later in the year demonstrates Manchester can now draw high-class productions.

Burlesque the Musical returns to the Opera House, Manchester from Thursday 3 October to Saturday 2 November 2024.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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