Sequined sisterhood muses on 'Jubilee!'

Watching the opening number of “Fantasy” the other night, I realized at least one thing hasn’t changed over the years: They still dance on lighted staircases.

The announcement that Bally’s “Jubilee!” is finally due for an overhaul had me thinking about the showgirl, and her place in Las Vegas now that Oscar Goodman no longer needs her to escort him to mayoral events.

The “Jubilee!” announcement came as a relief to Mistinguett, the single-named choreographer of many a showgirl-related revue (but today presents the showgirl-free “Killer, Cash &King” at Summerlin’s Starbright Theatre). “Every year, we just shake our knees,” she says of the showgirl alumnae community. “If they close that show it’ll be such a sad thing. The whole icon of this city is the showgirl.”

And yet, the definition and function of a showgirl has proved to be flexible, just like the related term “burlesque.” As Mistinguett points out, the word has so lost its definition that you’d think a showgirl is “nothing more than a girl who takes off her clothes and is the second level to a stripper.”

Vicki Pettersson spent 11 years as a showgirl before she retired the plumage headpieces to write urban fantasy novels (her ninth is due next summer). “What I always tried to evoke when I was onstage was not every woman, but the ultimate woman,” she says. “Someone who’s celebrating their femininity and celebrating being part of this world, walking around this world as a woman. You want every woman to walk out of there walking a little taller and feeling prouder.”

Maybe the “Fantasy” stars feel the same way. It’s fair to say the Luxor cabaret revue represents today’s showgirl. The show itself is an amalgamation of influences and eras, reflecting the life experience of producer Anita Mann, who danced on the ’60s show “Shindig.”

That “Jubilee!” is still around kind of complicates things. It’s quite the hot mess. Beautiful, but camp, dated from the minute it opened in 1981. And yet, as Mistinguett says, “It’s the only one left, that’s the thing.”

And Bally’s has brought in Beyonce’s choreographer, Frank Gatson Jr., to “modernize” the show for next spring. “I pray for this guy that he can do this. But he has to be very careful,” Mistinguett says.

Indeed. “Jubilee!” is an odd concoction that also rolled up the life experience and influences of creator Donn Arden. For example, you might ask why are those women topless in a nonerotic context; i.e., just posing on a staircase?

“You’re going back to the Ziegfeld (Follies),” Mistinguett explains. “They were tableaus. Women originally weren’t even supposed to move. They were just supposed to be beautiful. You’re supposed to actually acknowledge the body of the female.

“Before Las Vegas there were people all over this country who had never seen a topless woman onstage, let alone in a beautiful costume.”

What do you do about the music? The first time I saw “Jubilee!” I figured the music was the easiest thing to fix. Now I would cry if they took out the wacka-wacka ’70s-disco-exotica of the Samson and Delilah scene.

One answer could be to keep some numbers in a historical context, and bring others up to modern times. This was the Band-Aid approach in the dying years of the Tropicana Las Vegas’ “Folies Bergere,” where Pettersson danced, only the Tropicana didn’t spend any real money to do it.

“You have to give Bally’s props for reinvesting in such an iconic and gorgeous show,” Pettersson said. “The Trop just ripped out what made them different and spectacular and special. Instead of doubling down on it, they refused to invest in it and made themselves really ordinary for the sake of the bottom line.”

Mistinguett hopes Gatson has “more tricks in his bag choreographywise than bumping and wiggling like (Beyonce) does.”

“What have we got now, Miley Cyrus twerking? I don’t know if we need that kind of update,” Pettersson says.

She hopes Gatson proves to be a guy with “a love of classic movies and high glamour, but not necessarily of that world,” and who delivers “something that celebrates being a woman without degrading it.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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