Hearing “Let’s do the time warp again” might inspire more thoughts of Rocky Horror Picture Show than a burlesque performance, but Speakeasy Moderne, currently in performances at Stage 72, delivers a thoroughly delightful time warp that, after experiencing once, one will probably want to do again.
An evening of entertainment that combines Jazz Age Manhattan, vaudeville, cabaret and burlesque, Speakeasy Moderne is performed once a month at a hidden location that guests are informed of by secret e-mail on the day of the show. Audience members are encouraged to dress in period style of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and to sip cocktails in style as they enjoy the show.
Created by “Official Hank” (Hank Stampfl), Speakeasy Moderne first began at an Upper East Side bistro as a night of musical theater and pop music. Stampfl said the production quickly became a party, and performers were often found sitting in the patron’s laps as they dined and drank.
“With Stage 72, I’m kind of pushing their boundaries,” he said, citing a VIP pre-show reception with cast members and champagne and an after party following the show, where guests are invited to dance with the cast to music played by a DJ.
Audience members are part of the party at Speakeasy Moderne, where Stampfl said there is no fourth wall. It is broken in the opening number, where dancers go into the audience, welcoming everyone by sitting in their laps and flirting with them.
“I think it makes the show so much better when you make the audience involved,” said choreographer and performer Kimberly Schafer. “They have so much fun and you get to break down that wall.”
Schafer commented on the recent popularity of interactive theater, saying, “With reality TV now, the chance to be onstage is much more accessible. New Yorkers especially want to be in the spotlight. This really focuses the attention to them in a different way. I think people have more fun when they get to participate with you.”
“It inspires the audience to be something they haven’t been before,” recent featured guest singer Dina Fanai added. “When you’re watching something, there is that wall. You’re not challenged…here you’re challenged artistically, emotionally, creatively. When you’re watching something, you’re part of the creation, the experience.”
The goal of Speakeasy Moderne, according to Stampfl, is to help audiences step out of their lives and experience a completely different environment.
“They want to come, put down all their sorrows and pain,” he said. “That’s why you go to the theater. To release.”
Along with interactive theater, vintage culture and speakeasy bars have also experienced a recent rise in popularity, which Stampfl credits to the secretive nature of the hidden locations.
“Trends come and go,” he said, “I feel now the trend is definitely the 1930s. With all the speakeasy venues, all these places that are private and hidden – it’s intriguing.”
With its red velvet curtain, old-fashioned cocktails and dancers dressed in glittered, flapper-style dresses, Speakeasy Moderne certainly delivers an old-school, vintage atmosphere, but in a unique trend, it also performs modern music – in old-fashioned arrangements. In a recent performance, Stampfl performed Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” but no one recognized the song until the chorus, due to its unique arrangement.
While Speakeasy Moderne is a cabaret-style show, and the opening number of the production I saw was “Wilkomen,” from the musical Cabaret, a narrative theme of a love story between a man and a woman was maintained throughout the show and performed between Stampfl and Fanai, a singer and songwriter who has performed throughout the world with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Fanai, who just completed her fifth CD, has written and produced for Universal Records USA and Columbia/Japan Records, and was a featured vocalist on Grammy nominated Dave Eggar’s CD “Kingston Morning.”
In the production of Speakeasy Moderne, Fanai sang several solos, entering the theater from the back and strolling down the aisle while belting out “Rumor Has It” to Stampfl before tying him in a chair (while he asked, “Is this 50 Shades of Grey?”) She interacted frequently with the audience as well as singing torch love songs onstage.
“What I adore about Dina is to find performers who can go into the audience and sing within a foot of somebody and be comfortable,” Stampfl said. “Most people can sing the roof off the place, but to sit in a lap and sing is different.”
Stampfl said he works with every guest singer to develop characters and motivation, brainstorming what songs they want, writing them on notecards and finding a storyline. Every song Fanai sang in the most recent performance was about women’s power, and her character goes through what Stampfl called a “goosebumpy transition.” Fanai said this storyline in a cabaret show was special to her.
Speakeasy Moderne opened with a sexy rendition of “Wilkomen,” then transitioned to Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and “Goldeneye” from the James Bond film. “Rum and Coca Cola” was performed by the Ashley Alana Kenney, Julia Burrows, and Lynsey Buckelew, as well as Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”
Performing modern songs in an old-fashioned style is a special feature of Speakeasy Moderne, and Stampfl said, “With the show, it takes a whole reinvention. Time travel is definitely the key word. We inspire anything.”
The show also featured choreography by Schafer, who has assembled a wide variety of dance styles for Speakeasy Moderne.
“The dancing goes with the songs,” Schafer said. “It starts off very classic, Fosse-esqe, then it goes into the more modern, hip-hop realm. You get the classic Broadway, classic tap, jazz, burlesque, then you get the modern hip-hop.”
Schafer also performs “Hot Honey Rag” from the musical Chicago, performing the original choreography by Bob Fosse, which was taught to her by original revival cast member Ann Reiking. Schafter appreciates the opportunity to exhibit her various dance talents in Speakeasy Moderne, saying, “I usually do typical musical theater stuff. I am a versatile dancer myself, and all the burlesque and hip hop backgrounds I have, I’ve never really gotten to use. I get to incorporate everything I love and have been trained in a different style…The show’s always changing. You will get great numbers in our show. Each show is completely different. It takes on a different realm.”
Speakeasy Moderne also features some burlesque numbers, which Schafer described as being “all about the tease.”
“I feel like a lot of burlesque now, they end up taking off their clothes too soon,” Schafer said.”I’m very much into women’s power, and if you give too much, it kills the moment.”
“The mystery is the sexiest thing,” Fanai added.
“It’s the secret,” Schafer said. “You don’t want to ever reveal your secret to the men.”
My night at Speakeasy Moderne offered a great variety of fun and sensual entertainment. I was thrilled with the quality of the entertainment as well as the old-fashioned atmosphere that Stage 72 offered. The entire cast’s boisterous performance of “Feel Good,” as a closing song, was a fitting one; I certainly had one.
The next performance of Speakeasy Moderne is on April 25 at 9 PM, where International Billboard Artist and classically-trained chanteuse Sasha Lazard will be the featured guest singer.