Vixens in Wonderland is a sassy take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, reimagined as a mashup of burlesque (and boylesque), musical theatre, pop culture, Vegas glam and drag. It’s the love child of Gypsy Rose Lee and RuPaul, carried to term by Cher and delivered by Stephen Sondheim.
And if the classic children’s adventure isn’t trippy enough, this version offers an Alice in stilettos, a dominatrix Cheshire Cat, a ball-gagged White Rabbit and a Mad Hatter who can’t keep the back-door flap of his long johns closed. At least, he was experiencing an ongoing wardrobe malfunction at the rehearsal I attended Aug 7.
“It’s the first run-through with costumes,” executive producer Cameron Chase explains. “That wasn’t supposed to happen. Yet.”
I didn’t mind the spoiler. In fact, I was reluctant to leave the steaming rehearsal hall to speak with Chase about Concrete Vertigo and this, their fourth production since 2010.
“It started because I wanted to cross something off my bucket list,” Chase says. “And every year I’m a basket case and need therapy, and I know why producers drink and go to rehab.”
But that first show — Ruby Red, the story of Dorothy’s sexual awakening in Oz — was not only successful, it was inspiring. “I thought, ‘Oh, I could possibly kinda do this for a living, maybe,’” Chase says.
The expanding creative team now includes director/choreographer Dawn Ewen, musical director Stewart Yu, performer/co-producer Sable Strub and, in a true feat of multitasking, writer/performer and fight choreographer Mike Kovac.
Their shows just keep getting bigger and brasher, too. Ruby Red was presented at the PAL Theatre with a cast of 12. Vixens will be mounted at Performance Works on Granville Island with a cast of 20.
Born in Langley, Chase studied film at Capilano College and is currently enrolled in the theatre department at Ryerson University in Toronto. But when it came to fleshing out his vision, he returned to Vancouver. “We’ve really established ourselves here; our connections are here. Including my parents — who are in the Christian ministry and co-producing a topless show.”
The return was a smart move. Vancouver loves burlesque. We have our very own Burlesque Centre and an International Burlesque Festival soon entering its 10th year. And because we’re exercise-obsessed, there’s a long list of fitness centres and dance studios offering burlesque-inspired classes, everything from pole dancing to StilettoFit.
“I think there’s a burlesque resurgence because it inspires people to not subscribe to fashion-industry-dictated body images, but to be . . . whatever they are,” Chase says. “We want you to walk away feeling sexy and wanting to go home and look at yourself naked. And I think people do, because everyone sees a piece of themselves in someone on that stage. It’s the most diverse and inclusive cast we’ve ever had in terms of body types, gender, orientation and age.”
Performer Stephanie Liatopoulos agrees. “We all get to be the heroes or damsels or clowns because there is no perfect body shape.”
These themes of diversity and inclusivity are also mirrored in the story (yes, there is a story; it’s not just tits and ass). Alice (Emily Kapahi) is an unwelcome guest in the realm of the Red King (Sean Parsons), a ruler so opposed to anyone different that he wants her beheaded. Though everyone in his realm is at least a little bit different, the king remains adamant, finally expressing his uncompromising demand for conformity in a show-stopping, clothing-optional rendition of “Work Bitch.”
“We don’t get too heavy with the message, but it’s about universal acceptance,” Chase says. “It’s a celebration of everyone.”
Which might explain the absolute joy in the room as the rehearsal is punctuated by roof-raising cheers.
“Naked day wasn’t supposed to be until Sunday!” Chase says. “But I’m not surprised they’re going for it. We’ve got people who’ve never been topless in a show before. You really have to show a lot of respect and let people work at their own pace.”
The result is a room full of hot, sweaty, talented people celebrating their sexiness in all its incarnations. The feeling is undeniably infectious. After watching this cast, I just might’ve cycled home, cranked the Cher and got my private burlesque on.