“When people hear the word ‘burlesque,’ they think it’s something raunchy,” says Grace Salinas, production manager for The Moonlight Dolls, the troupe that takes the stage every Friday and Saturday night at Downtown Houston revue Prohibition Supperclub and Bar. “We’re out to show that it really can be classy.”
In fact, burlesque always has been classy. The combination of music and dance has roots dating back to the 1830s in London, where it was a parody of more serious theater. Troupes would riff on popular shows of the day, both the audience and the performers in on the joke. American burlesque borrowed that format as early as the 1840s and, in typical American fashion, became a bit more free form and freewheeling, morphing into Vaudeville, then splitting itself off again into striptease.
Class It Up
If you’re sitting there thinking that striptease is a synonym for strip club, you’re wrong. Which brings us back to the class element. The stripteases of the late 1800s and on into the 1920s and ‘30s were teasing affairs, where performers bared all gradually, flirtatiously, often using props such as gloves and feathers. It was said about Gypsy Rose Lee, one of the most famous striptease artists ever, that she took 15 minutes to peel off a single glove.
And that is the beauty of burlesque. If you’re looking to see what all the fuss was about –and burlesque was big in its American heyday– then you better head downtown to Prohibition, because the Moonlight Dolls are bringing back this art with both enthusiastic abandon and a studied, pitch-perfect nod to its roots, lifting the curtain on burlesque performance in all its flirtatious glory.
“Burlesque is all the art forms,” says Moonlight Dolls producer, director and costume designer Lian Lham. “It’s dance, it’s singing, it’s music.” Also fire acts. And aerial performances that routinely leave audiences gasping, right before bursting into applause.
The troupe of about a dozen dancers and performers draws on talent from all over Houston. Some of them do this part-time, working day jobs. Others are full-time performers. Depending on whether they’re launching an entirely new show or simply adding new numbers into one of the existing concepts, they might rehearse four to six hours a week. The result is a set of shows that dovetail beautifully with Prohibition’s 1920s speakeasy-cum-supper club feel.
The Friday night performance is called Provocateur, which Salinas calls “neoburlesque.” “It’s a more modern feel. We use music from the 1990s and 2000s, we have projections on the walls.” Pham adds that it has something of a circus feel to it.
The Saturday evening performance, The Moonlight Show, is old school. There’s a host who guides the audience through the performance, introducing all of the acts. The music nods to the Great American Songbook and Broadway, and the acts include classic striptease along with aerial and fire acts.
Launching soon is a Thursday night show, American Vaudeville, which tips its hat to classic Vaudeville acts, including acrobatics, comedic talent, and novelty performances. It’s not burlesque, but it’s equally authentic to its variety show roots.
Back to Its Roots
The troupe has been around for three years, and used to perform at the Prohibition space in the Galleria. When the restaurant moved to its new location in the old Isis Theater downtown, the Dolls came, too –and the marrying of their art form in that space is inspired. “Burlesque had a revival in the 1990s,” says Pham. “You’d see it in New York and in Las Vegas or Paris. There was this throwback to the 1920s happening. And it’s stayed around. Our performances are authentic to that time period, and that goes so well with Prohibition’s format. And in this space! It’s huge, and we use the stage and the staircase, everywhere we can.”
Prohibition supplies the dinner and drinks for the Moonlight Dolls shows. Audience members purchase a separate ticket to the shows, then buy a three-course, pre-fixe dinner in the theatre space, a sweeping combination of wrought iron, exposed brick, towering Corinthian columns and graceful drapes. The whole place feels like you’ve stepped back in time. Diners watch the show across multiple levels, and performers aren’t confined to the stage –they slink down the stairs, sing from balconies and float on ribbons from the ceiling.
Satin and Satire
“Many in our audience tell us they haven’t seen a show like this is decades,” says Salinas. “We have couples who come in and celebrate their 40th or 50th anniversary, and they saw shows like this when they were the entertainment of the day.”
Pham says that many return as regulars. The menu changes up seasonally, and she says she’s always incorporating new numbers into the performances, so you won’t see the same show twice. You will, however, come away feeling you’ve been part of something original on Houston’s entertainment scene.
“Burlesque really flips the social mores on its head,” says emcee Ryan Adam Wells. “There’s a satire to it, the women performing absolutely own their femininity. They know you’re looking at them – in fact, they’re looking at you looking at them and making fun of you for it. This is just great fun.”
The Moonlight Dolls bring a fantastic addition to Houston’s entertainment lineup. Their performances are fresh, feisty, and flat-out fun. Burlesque at its best is smart, sassy. And the Moonlight Dolls deliver a decidedly modern performance with a gentle vintage touch.
Moonlight Dolls at Prohibition Supperclub and Bar
- Performance Times: 7pm and 9:30pm, Friday and Saturday. (Thursday Vaudeville performances begin on April 9)
- Location: Prohibition Supperclub and Bar, 1008 Prairie, Houston, TX 77002
- Tickets: $65 per person. For tickets and information, themoonlightdolls.com.
- Phone: 281-940-4636