As we sit sipping pre-show drinks at the bar downstairs at the Crown, in front of a stage decorated with some of the most depressing Christmas trees I’ve ever seen, Tommy Gunn somehow makes me feel like I’m in a Winter Wonderland. As creative director and stage manager for Bunns of Steele Productions, the burlesque company behind the recurring “Burl-eoke” shows at The Crown, Gunn’s enthusiasm is infectious. When I ask what makes Bunns of Steele different from other troupes, his answer is a jaunty: “Well, you’re not gonna see burlesque as goofy as this.”
If you don’t know what “Burl-eoke” is, don’t worry; it was practically invented by the company’s founders, Bunny Vicious and Twiggy Steele. The concept is a kicky blend of karaoke, burlesque, and improv. At the mid-December holiday edition of “Burl-eoke,” several (pre-selected) singers compete in the first round by performing prepared Christmas tunes to karaoke tracks, and one is eliminated by audience vote. In the second, the remaining singers are paired up at random with burlesque dancers to form teams. The dancers have no idea what they will be dancing to, the singers little more what they will sing. In the third round, the difficulty increases as Gunn, who also serves as MC, introduces “challenges” like eating popcorn as they perform, or a “backwards burlesque” where the dancer has to put their clothes on. In between rounds, company members give lap dances and sing silly songs.
The structure of the event helps keep the whole thing from going stale, sometimes a problem
with straightforward burlesque, which can feel like an endless string of pretty ladies biting their gloves and peeling their stockings. There’s also a refreshing diversity of performers involved; Gunn is quick to note that the company is a “body positive environment” and that does seem true, as there were lots of different body types on stage, all united by fluffy red marabou. Bunns of Steele also disrupts the focus on women’s bodies found in traditional burlesque: Gunn dances, as does Danny Carbo, a “boylesque” performer who does a sexy routine to “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” no easy feat.
Song choices range between Lee Conderacci’s pop-punk snarl on Blink 182’s ‘I Won’t Be Home for Christmas’ to the sultry vocals of CynDiva Harcum’s take on ‘Merry Christmas Baby.’ And if you think that dancing to something like this would be cut rate, you’re dead wrong. Some of it is, true to Gunn’s word, goofy—I won’t soon forget the burlesque-styled Christmas tree in five-inch red heels—and some, like Tempete La Coeur’s on-the-spot improvisation to ‘Let it Snow,’ classic and elegant. And as someone who can barely put her clothes on in the morning without fucking it up, I’m impressed by the dancers’ ability to shed that last piece of clothing on the beat—burlesque is truly all about the timing of the pasties.
Despite a few technical difficulties, the evening holds together, and that is largely due to the company’s warmth and clear joy in what they do. There are as many enthusiastic hugs onstage as there are butt tassels, and so you can’t help but root for them. By the time Conderacci and Viscous are crowned the winning team, the entire audience is feeling it, interacting with the performers as Gunn encouraged us to do during the “Burlesque 101” info session at the top of the show.
As Bunny Vicious unbuckles the clasps on her green satin corset and Bitesize Aria spins in mounds of angelic tulle, both on stage for the show’s finale (a Mariah Carey-fueled dueling duet), the energy in the room surges. Audience participation is a must at a burlesque show, but right now, we don’t need to be told what to do. Amid claps and hollers, whistles and stomps, the singers throw themselves into the high notes as the dancers triumphantly twirl and flash to the music. If Gunn says anything important as he grabs the mic back, I don’t hear it. By that time, it’s all just part of the blissed-out blur.
Bunns of Steele produces multiple events a year, including several “Burl-eoke” nights at The Crown—look out for Valentine’s Day and 4/20 shows, among others, coming up in 2018. Go to sluttytimes.com to check out the company’s new weekly podcast, premiering on Dec. 21 at 11 p.m. For more information on Bunns of Steele, visit bosburlesque.com.