Billtown Burlesque, the area's first and only dedicated Burlesque troupe, will be performing at Synergy, 416 W. Third St., Friday. The doors open at 8 p.m., with a 9 p.m. start.
Billtown Burlesque came together quite organically last year, drawing together people from several corners of Williamsport's vibrant art and cultural communities, in a remarkable feat of organization. Isaac Conner, one of the troupe's organizers, said that the original idea for putting together a burlesque performance may have come from Liz Miele, who had a part in outlining the original concept for the group.
Burlesque as an art form dates back centuries in one form or another. The latest incarnation has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but experienced a renaissance over the past few years, growing out of the performance events that became a part of the festival music scene in the very early 1990s.
In 1992, the Jim Rose Circus, a modern and sometimes cringe-inducing take on a circus sideshow act, was a secondary act at the Lollapalooza festival. It was an instant cult hit, not only for the extreme nature of its performances, but for its ambiance, a combination of greasepaint, mystery, danger and sexiness. Rolling Stone called it the "absolute must-see act" of the festival.
While Rose's sideshow act-style failed to have broad mainstream appeal, it paved the way for a revival of other performance types, some, like burlesque, that had all but disappeared for decades.
Billtown Burlesque is like many of these acts around the country, in that it places a heavy emphasis on fun. It's a variety show at its heart; past shows have had song performances where the lyrics were so peppered with double entendre that they border on inappropriate for a family newspaper. (The more daring of you can look online for Connie Vannett's "Pussy Cat Song," if you can't infer from the title exactly what the lyrics are likely to be.) There have been campy drag performances, comedy and even appearances by the local roller derby team, the Susquehanna Valley Derby Vixens.
There are strip teases in the act, but again, the emphasis is more on "tease" rather than "strip," so the result is sexy and fun without crossing the line to obscene or explicit. Still, it's a very sexy show.
"Over the top, sexy, risque," is how Conner characterized it, with a twinkle in his eye.
Conner said the group has done a tremendous amount of research for this performance. Group members and friends scour the web for reference material like video clips, sharing them with the rest of the group on Facebook. One clip might be a burlesque performance from the night before in another city, another, Gypsy Rose Lee performing in the 1940s.
This is a young group, and like most people their age, they are a hyper-connected crowd. This hyper-connectivity isn't just online either - their ties to the community have let them pull together both the resources and the fans they need to put together several impressive shows.
When they were first putting together the original idea, they wanted to showcase it on a fast-approaching First Friday. The problem was that they didn't have a suitable place to set up, but local businessman Matt Showers came to the rescue and offered them an unused storefront at the corner of West Fourth and Pine streets, practically "ground zero" on any First Friday.
"The local businesses have been tremendously supportive," according to Conner. "Matt Showers, Club Z, the Pajama Factory, Ralph Wilson's Streetlight Photography, Eric Winters, the owner of Club Synergy-there are too many to name."
In return, Billtown Burlesque helps out these businesses where they can by doing things like having their iconic "cigarette girls" make appearances or donating their proceeds to the new community radio station, WXPI, 88.5 FM.
This Friday's show is heavily themed around Mardi Gras, so it's a much much sexier show than their Halloween show. It will be less political than past shows as well. Conner has a background in both stage and what he termed "biting political satire," but that, too, has always been in good fun with the Billtown Burlesque. Conner told me that at one of their earlier performances - one that had a running theme lampooning the gas industry. There were gas workers in the audience, but they enjoyed themselves along with the rest of the crowd, seeing the humor in the show's portrayal of the burgeoning local industry.
Conner told me that he'd like Billtown Burlesque to become a viable entertainment option for our visiting workers, along with the people who have always called the Lycoming Valley home. The area doesn't have a lot of adult-themed establishments, so hopefully this will fill some of that gap more tastefully than opening say, a strip club, while still offering a night of sexy, fun entertainment.