By Owen Bryant
If you hear the words “vaudeville” or “burlesque” the first thing that comes to mind might be an old-timey peep show. Smoky speakeasies, raunchy jazz music and women coyly teasing their audiences in frilly outfits that they remove piece by piece. Or you might think back to the heydays of Red Skelton, when nightclubs featured music and comedy acts instead of Top 40 dance mixes.
You wouldn’t be far off if these images came to mind, but there is a deep and colorful history to these artforms and believe it or not, they have evolved and seen some revitalization in the present day, even right here in Reno.
Recently I had the chance to catch a show at The Library Taphouse & Hookah Lounge on West Second Street. A comfortable place with a pretty mixed crowd, the Library is home base to a local troupe known as Lavish Vaudeville.
The ringmistress, Fanci Valles aka Madame Medusa, started Lavish in 2018. A lover of dance and burlesque from a young age, Valles looked up to the likes of Josephine Baker, Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe and Liza Minnelli. Since the age of 5 she has studied dance styles including ballet, tap, hip hop, modern, jazz and more, and has been teaching since she was 16.
It wasn’t until 29 and a difficult breakup that Valles was truly able to explore burlesque and embody the confidence and beauty she so admired in her idols.
While teaching a “Sultry & Sass” class in 2018, Valles noticed how well her students all moved together and wondered if they’d be willing to perform if she wrote a show. To her surprise, they agreed and were soon performing to wild praise at The Library.
That small group of about 10 has grown to as large as 28 at times, with people joining and leaving as they wish. Lavish features male and female dancers of all styles, singers and comedians, audience participation, games and whatever else they wish to throw on stage.
When I first discovered Lavish through my friend Lisa, who dances and sings in the troupe, I assumed it was just a burlesque group, which is not too uncommon these days. But as burlesquey as Lavish gets (and they do get!) Lavish is more than just a titillating striptease. It is true vaudeville.
According to Valles, the distinction between the two is this: burlesque is an individual dancer or group dancing the style of burlesque and vaudeville is a variety act.
Lavish dances every style, has singing, comedians and other acts, so is therefore a vaudeville troupe. There is no way to predict what to expect at a Lavish show, Valles says. Each show is themed and structured differently, with constantly rotating and new acts, so going to see a show is the only way to know.
Their last show, the one I saw, started out like any typical Friday karaoke night, with bargoers showing off their singing skills. I sang a Bowie song. Pretty tame start, but then the Lavish cast would appear after every few songs and do a routine, dancing, singing, and of course, showing some skin at times. They even incorporated a few of the karaoke performances into their own act.
It was a unique concept making use of the “live” music and audience participation. The crowd seemed happily surprised at the added entertainment, and for Valles, it was an easy show and something she might like to do more often between her larger productions.
Aside from the entertainment, Valles says Lavish is all about love, support and confidence. She wants people to discover their “inner Goddess or God” and feel comfortable in their bodies and she loves helping them “find their sparkle.”
Her performers come from all walks of life and skill levels, yet they are a close-knit tribe. The pandemic was especially hard on them since they were unable to rehearse and perform together. Valles says that the acceptance and support among the group is a beautiful, special thing both on stage and off.
Lavish is a refreshing addition to the entertainment Reno offers. They’re a motley crew of dedicated and talented locals, which is always a joy to see. They’re always evolving and bringing something new to the stage with every show, which is so true to the art of vaudeville, it’s quite admirable. They’re doing something you don’t see a whole lot locally.
As for the future, Lavish has a few more shows sprinkled throughout the year. Expect another karaoke pop-up this summer, a charity benefit show in September, and possibly more in between. They may also be booked for private events like bachelor/bachelorette parties, birthdays and holiday parties. Information about upcoming shows, booking and auditions is on their official Instagram @lavish.vaudeville.