SBTH Theatre Company

at Sneakers Annex

Nostalgia not only isn’t what it used to be, it seems to take less and less time to trigger. The memory-mongering of Live Dancers Tonite is applied to the early 70s. Ah, that innocent era of Watergate hearings and a strategically frantic withdrawal from an undeclared war, those halcyon days when no one knew a yuppie and aerobics were what you did if your bladder was full. Memory Lane just branched out.

Written and directed by David Gillian and Michael Brett, Dancers is a 70-minute “musical comedy episode” set in a seedy go-go club somewhere off Rush Street. Actually the place and its denizens–all gently spoofed by six members of the new SBTH Theatre Company and varying guest performers–are fairly timeless. The intimate Sneakers Annex space, which could just as easily pass for a mid-50s combination truck stop/clip joint (except for Mark Mac Lean’s clever predisco music), teems with the eternally generic: aggressively festive decorations, an obligatory mirror ball, a jukebox that blows bubbles and whose needle keeps skipping in the middle of songs (unless the girls stomp the stage in the right spot), and a postage-stamp stage, virtually in the audience’s lap, where the girls endlessly bump and grind. You just know nobody ever got discovered in a joint like this.

Among the dancers themselves, you find the inevitable mix of desperate-to-please and bored-to-tears eager beavers and seasoned veterans. The headliner of this, as she tenderly puts it, “roach motel” is blond, blowsy, good-time Sharon (Candace Schell), who, if she wore an odometer, could prove her hips have traveled several thousand miles. The other “went-went” dancer is sharp-tongued dominatrix Roxanne (Tracy Payne), a hard-boiled, leopard-skinned stripper who’s teased her hair so much it’s struck back and who uses an electric fan to add magic to her moves. (Well, she thinks they’re magical.)

Finally, shaking up the burlesque status quo is newcomer Vikki (Shelley Kuefner, though the night I saw it understudy Jeanne Lee Rosner played this peppy ingenue). Incredibly new to the sleaze scene and desperate for a gimmick, incongruously wholesome Vikki tries everything–pom-poms, a “strip polka,” a Shirley Temple imitation–but these crude departures from tradition bore Roxanne and badly irritate Cora (Betty Hack), the foghorn-voiced box office manager who wants the acts kept dependably tacky. Inevitably, Roxanne and Sharon teach Vikki the tricks of the trade, and in turn Roxanne, taking a hint from Vikki’s eclecticism, adds a trashy, calypso-style, Carmen Miranda imitation to her otherwise lower-Las Vegas repertoire.

Moving the show through its lumbering paces are the patient and affable MC (David Rice)–his name and his job coincide–who tries to steer bubbling Vikki toward “something a little more entertainment-oriented,” and the drink-hustling bartender Eric (Michael Wexler), who doubles as Roxanne’s too-willing dance partner. MC, it seems, has a crush on Roxanne (crushed is how she makes him feel), so he wants Eric off-limits. But the men work out their squabble with a duet, “Bartenders Have It Easy/No Mention of Wimps,” that’s easily the best song of the show. The others, with lyrics that are, I hope, deliberately banal, range from the generic disco of the title song to a less than Supreme “Beetown Mowhive.” Still, here, as in the calculated Gong Show campiness of El Grande de Coca-Cola, which this show so much resembles, excellence would simply get in the way.

Of course, assorted calamities add to the environmental chaos: there’s the arrival of horny sailors; there’s the nerdy pilot whose description of flying really turns Roxanne on; and the plumber who removes the back sink, the beer delivery man dropping off a load, the upstairs neighbor bitching about the noise, the bride frantically searching for the groom, and the haughty senator’s wife sure her mate is slumming as usual (Donna Rice was not in sight). Roxanne squabbles with Cora over the box office light she turns on during Roxanne’s big shimmy, and Eric gets chewed out for dancing behind the bar. All in all, it’s a typical night’s work at the roadhouse.

It’s never entirely clear whether Dancers is a parody, a period piece, or an attempt to have it both ways; accordingly, few moments here prove uproariously funny or bitingly satirical, and a few dead spots cry out to be ad-libbed away. But what’s both refreshing and poignant is how well this show captures the funny-sad, show-biz eagerness-to-please that’s all the sadder when the lounge act really stinks. You’ll find here an unpretentious warmth that the slightest polish would utterly destroy. Strangely enough, this very crudeness makes it all feel like good clean fun.