Burlesque The Musical

To say Burlesque has been an integral part of my adult life is an understatement. I saw the movie at the cinema nine times, I constantly requested the soundtrack to be played at the clubs and this is my third viewing of the much-anticipated musical.

Movie to musical adaptations have stormed the theatre scene since the pandemic, with mixed results. Audiences tend to love the nostalgia of the often high-budget translations to the stage but from a critical perspective, how good are they? And, more importantly, are they worth your hard-earned cash?

Burlesque, written by original film writer Steven Antin (with additional material from Kate Wetherhead and direction from Nick Winston), sits right in the middle of this spectrum: Is it high budget? Yes. Is it high energy? Yes. Does it have good production value? Yes. Does it work? To an extent. It would be extremely easy to give this show a top rating for its incredible vocals, slick choreography and undeniable buzz- but at this point, it’s verging on smoke and mirrors.

There may be spoilers ahead so read at your peril.

The already loose plot has been adapted to be based in New York as opposed to Los Angeles. With this, the main plotline of the movie has to be changed; no longer are “air rights” an issue for Tess (Jackie Burns) to lose the club. No longer is Sunset Strip the basis of the Burlesque Lounge and no longer does Ali (Jess Folley) have the yearning to be a star. Instead, we have Ali eloping to New York to find her birth mother, ‘Theresa Richardson’ and Tess is at risk of losing the club due to mounting debts.

Predominantly, the issue with the show is the book. There is a lacking depth to the iconic characters. Yes, some of the new songs add to the character arcs (namely, ‘Got It All From You’, penned by Folley) but by the end of the flashy show, I find myself thinking, ‘how did we get to this point?’. No longer is Tess the witty and powerful club owner who rules the roost but appears to come second fiddle to the flamboyant Shaun (Todrick Hall). Although the lyric changes to Grammy-nominated song, ‘You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me’ gives an insight into why Tess is who she is based on her past, the character going forward doesn’t exude that trauma she is hiding. The song is also too wordy, an example being, “well, not yet” which could simply be, “just yet” to align with the melody. Gone is Marcus Gerber who is out to sabotage the club in the movie and instead his character traits passed on to Tess’s ex-husband, Vince (George Maguire). The biggest character flaw however is Nicki (Nina Ann Nelson). Nicki is a character that you love to hate, you can relate to her jealousy over Ali becoming the star, but with her forgettable songs in the production and lack of character depth, especially her U-turn in Act 2 coming not as a surprise, but a plot hole, it’s hard to care.

The cast do all they can to make this show succeed. Jess Folley (who also provided music and lyrics) gives a well-rounded Ali, with powerhouse vocals throughout. Her interpretation adds a new energy to the character and is a lot more likeable than her movie counterpart. There is some hesitancy in the dance numbers from Folley when centre stage compared to her peers (this is also the case for Nelson), but nevertheless, she commands the stage and takes us on a journey from unsure teen to icon.

Jackie Burns takes over from the iconic Cher, which is no easy feat. However, where it could be easy to pander to audiences for a Cher caricature, Burns makes Tess her own. Her voice is remarkable and silences the audience throughout, though this could be due to the lyric changes in her numbers which frankly water down their impact. The aforementioned ‘You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me’ has been replaced by ‘Life’s Not Fair, It’s Fabulous’ for Tess’ 11 o’clock number which is, sadly, anticlimactic. I would love a reprise here showing Tess reclaiming her power. The biggest error for Tess however is having the legendary line, “WAGON WHEEL WATUSI” as a video recording, stealing this opportunity from Broadway icon, Burns.

The star casting of Todrick Hall is both a mega plus and a slight negative. Hall is a phenomenal talent. He essentially comperes the show and has some big production numbers. But the character of Shaun now has bigger numbers than Tess. It appears the character has been adapted for Hall, which of course he has the talent for, but how does this add to the plot? Yes, it gives the audience what they want, but as a theatre lover, we’re there to enjoy Burlesque, not Todrick Hall as Todrick Hall as Shaun. His numbers are less burlesque and more the music we come to identify as his own brand.

Choreography, also by Nick Winston (et al) is a major plus in the show. It oozes with sex appeal whilst also bringing in some of the original steps from the movie, 'Wagon Wheel Watusi' and 'Express' being a particular highlight. The ensemble is predominantly inclusive but having some different body shapes (a la its natural comparison piece, Moulin Rouge) would have been welcome. They also say you’re only as good as your weakest performer, one dancer comes across as awkward and is a distraction throughout.

Set design from Soutra Gilmour predominantly works. The metal structure juxtaposed with the slick lighting (Jack Knowles) and sultry costuming (Ryan Dawson Laight) gives the edgy and underground vibe of the Burlesque scene. However, the audience are ripped from the narrative during clunky set changes by the backstage team in non-character costume. It is here is where some smoke and mirrors would be welcomed.

What could be a legendary show seems to have a case of too many chefs and results in a rushed story arc with additional numbers thrown in to distract the audience. However, Burlesque is an undeniably enjoyable night out for anyone wanting a bit of throwaway escapism. As they say- step into the fantasy- you’ll never wanna leave!

This show was reviewed on the 25th June 2024 at The Opera House, Manchester where it runs until the 29th June 2024, before returning for a second run between the 3rd October - 2nd November 2024.  Tickets available here: Burlesque The Musical Tickets | Opera House Manchester in Manchester | ATG Tickets

Full details for the show can be found here: Home | Burlesque The Musical (burlesqueonstage.com)

Review written by Lee Gregory


Photo credit: Johan Persson

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