Gypsy Layne Cabaret & Co. offers burlesque with a bit of cheek

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PITTSFIELD — At the 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival, the annual 10-day revival of the Pittsfield arts scene during the dead of winter, Gypsy Layne Cabaret & Co.'s performances have contributed more than a few jolts over the years.

"It is very va-va-va-va-voom," City of Pittsfield's Office of Cultural Development director Jen Glockner said.

Set to embark on its ninth season, Gypsy Layne has evolved from a burlesque troupe operating out of small Berkshire venues to a more diversified act capable of packing larger establishments across New England. On Friday and Saturday night beginning at 7, the group will perform at Hotel on North, presenting cheeky skits in more ways than one.

"It's really a big night of fun because we don't do just a lot of striptease. That's part of it, yes, absolutely. But there are also elements of singing, live music, dancing, comedy skits," said Nicole Rizzo, Gypsy Layne's artistic director, choreographer and producer.

The Williamstown resident started Gypsy Layne in 2010. Based at The Red Herring on Spring Street, the group quickly gained a Williamstown following before moving its headquarters to a space on North Street. The company made its 10x10 debut in 2014 and has since established itself as a force in the regional nightlife scene. Last weekend, the group performed at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vt., one of its haunts. It also has had shows at Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton and Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield.

"The outpouring of support from our audience has been amazing," Rizzo said.

Fans appreciate the troupe's large cast — typically 12 or 13 performers on any given night — and its inclusiveness, according to Rizzo.

"There's no one shape and one size. I'm really proud of that, that we highlight all body shapes and body types," she said.

Each performer has a character

"When people come to a show, they can say, 'Oh, I can't wait to see Kitty 'Bang Bang' Holloway,' or, 'I can't wait to see Mike Monaco,'" Rizzo said. "We want those characters to be really present and alive, because in addition to them having numbers in the show, they also do these kitten numbers in between where they're picking things up, picking up articles of clothing. Or, they're setting up a scene, or they're striking a set. It's those in between numbers that can really come alive."

For Rizzo, creating a narrative structure and generating laughs is vital for each number.

"Some of the numbers, we're taking our clothes off. There is that striptease. But [as in the words of a song from the Gypsy Rose Lee musical, "Gypsy"] 'You gotta get a gimmick.' It's all about how can we create this fun aspect of, 'OK, if I'm going to do this number, what is the beginning, what is the middle and the end? Where can I bring in some laughs?' It's very, very cheeky, this bawdy comedy," Rizzo said.

Rizzo's background is in musical theater and dance. She relishes combining dance's technical aspects with a burlesque spin. She began researching burlesque while working on a show in Los Angeles that never came to fruition, learning more about early 1900s burlesque and Lee, whose life inspired the musical, "Gypsy." Rizzo subsequently studied how the art form evolved over time. It has grown increasingly popular of late, she said.

"It's really been the last 20 to 30 [years] that it's revived," Rizzo said, citing Dita Von Teese as a "pioneer" in bringing it back.

But there are still those who don't understand burlesque, including some in Gyspy Layne's home territory.

"I think that we still have a ways to go in Berkshire County," Rizzo said. "I think that there's still a conservative feel to it, so we're still trying to push through those boundaries and really ... have a conversation about what burlesque means and what it means for women and empowerment, and for men and for our gay community and for our LGBT community."

Rizzo enjoys educating the troupe's skeptics, though.

"Whether ... you appreciate technical dance, whether ... you appreciate singing, you want to look into the striptease aspect of it or the comedy — there's something for everyone," she said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.




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