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Swing Lower 

A fast-paced variety alternative to the inspired cheesiness of Beach Blanket Babylon

Wednesday, Jan 14 2004
When the swing-dance movement (along with the stock market) flagged at the turn of this century, another retro fashion was starting to rise. Burlesque, vaudeville, cabaret, boom-boom -- all these manifestations of the Jazz Age's underbelly have made a comeback, in an ironic way, to give the old swing kids something to dress up for. The Va Va Voom Room is one of the revival's more venerable shows. It set up residence in New York about four years ago, and now a San Francisco version has arrived at the Plush Room with most of its moving parts intact.

You sit at a table and order drinks while a faux-German mistress of ceremonies named Miss Astrid guides you through the menu of performers. She wears a red kimono and a corset to restrain her body fat; her eye patch comes with a shaggy dog story about circus performers and knives. She's as blasé as an overcast Hamburg afternoon. It rained on the night I attended, and Miss Astrid in her toneless voice encouraged everyone to drink until we were blotto. "You know zat expression 'Save it for a rainy day'?" she said. "Well, look outside."

So the feel of The Va Va Voom Room is more Weimar than Barbary Coast, but it doesn't matter. Anything retro seems to qualify for a spot on the roster. Desirée d'Amour gives a fabulous belly-dancing striptease to a crashing, saloon-piano jazz soundtrack; three shapely members of the Lollies take off their gloves and dance teasingly with feather fans. The headline striptease act, Harvest Moon, also does marvelous things with feathers. No one gets naked -- it's not a Tenderloin strip show -- but the audience does like to see flesh, and the dancing is more about cool costumes and willful, cheerful exhibitionism than about skilled choreography. (The Lollies, on my night, seemed especially loose.)

Between striptease acts, there's music. A jazz trio called the Schadenfreude Three backs up Miss Astrid and a few other singers. On the night I attended, Mark Brignone sang Sinatra standards with a lot of skill, but didn't have enough confident presence between songs; in burlesque, a stage persona is everything. Robin Coomer, on the other hand, lacked no confidence, and shivered the rafters. Coomer, who goes by Ruby onstage, has a stunning, electric voice that might be trained for rock 'n' roll but seems perfectly suited to the kind of rowdy, over-the-top show burlesque audiences come to see. She was casual, flirtatious, a bit drunken and saucy -- and so sinuous in her pearls and sea-green dress I thought she might miss her cue from the band. But her timing was sturdy and tight. She sang a tender cover of "All of Me," then put everything behind a Minnie the Moocher-style lament called "San Francisco Fan," about a woman dying for "a man who wasn't worth/ A shovel full of earth." I almost cried.

Miss Astrid also pretended to have an accordion-playing aunt from Poland who visited for Christmas and wouldn't leave. This unwanted relative was called Queen Kielbasa, remembered by some diligent audience members for her solo drag shows on the patio of Mad Magda's Tea Room, when Mad Magda's still existed. "Aunt" Kielbasa wore huge glittery glasses and a glittering blouse, sang one number about a gambling trip to Reno, then finished with the rocking "In-Law Polka," about being an unwanted relative.

A man named Sebastian Boswell III came out in a tuxedo to "elevate the proceedings above the merely sensual" -- and failed, miserably. He did an anticlimactic rope trick that took too long and seemed calculated to draw out the vaudeville hook, which, I'm afraid, never made an appearance.

Overall, The Va Va Voom Room is a stylish revue of hip cabaret. It's a fast-paced, low-budget alternative to the inspired cheesiness of Beach Blanket Babylon. But it still ain't cheap: If burlesque variety shows used to be for sailors and beer-swilling laborers, this revival is priced for cocktail-party types, at $20 or so per seat and about $8 per drink. At those rates, I wish I could guarantee that Ruby will sing every week, but alas. You pays your money and you takes your choice.


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