“The Empire Strips Back” Opens in New York
Burlesque or burlesque not. There is no try.
Jabba the Hut is en route. Yoda is getting a tune-up. Staff rushes around with lightsabers. C-3PO is in rehearsal. One hour before showtime, a line starts forming outside the Orpheum Theatre on 2nd Avenue in the East Village, beginning with one lone man in a beat-up Star Wars tank top. Soon the line will curl around the block, onto St. Marks Place, as a barrage of people ready their tickets for the opening night of “The Empire Strips Back,” a Star Wars burlesque parody.
The show first began in Australia in 2011 and has since been touring the world. Now it puts down more stable roots here in New York. Knowing that Orpheum Theatre’s previous inhabitant, the dance-music-theater work “Stomp,” ran in the space for 29 years, producer David Foster hopes for the best. “We’ll be here for as long as New York will have us,” he says. “It could be six months, it could be six years, right?”
Foster himself has a background producing shows for the likes of Kiki and Herb (the beloved act of cabaret icons Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman) at Carnegie Hall, as well performer Murray Hill and even the cast of Family Guy with a live orchestra. Interestingly, the Orpheum is also no stranger to shows like “The Empire Strips Back.” It opened in 1904 in the heyday of Yiddish Theatre, morphed into a movie theater and then went back to a beloved off-Broadway house before “Stomp” took over in 1994. Indeed, its roots are with variety, burlesque and dance acts, such as those belonging to its latest inhabitant, which Foster refers to with a laugh as “somewhere between Fosse and the Rockettes.”
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And the show, which focuses mostly on the original trilogy of Star Wars films, is by no means short on sense of humor, in true burlesque fashion. “It’s a very loving parody of that whole world,” Foster says. In the United States, the show also doesn’t have to worry about running into copyright laws because the country’s freedom of speech dictates are much stronger than other places. Foster mentions the show cannot run in New Zealand, for example, where the laws are much more strict.
Entering the Orpheum on opening night, ushers with small lightsabers guide guests to their seats. As with other burlesque shows, a comedian serves as host and introduces a series of acts ranging from solos to pas de deux to group numbers, but this time it all happens with a Star Wars wink. The Emperor rides a disco ball shaped like the Death Star. Han and Chewie dance to a bromance mix that includes Tenacious D’s “Fuck Her Gently.” Darth Vader breaks it down to 2000s-era Girl Talk. But there are also dreamier dance numbers starring jedi and what starts as a heartfelt Princess Leia ballet with R2D2. It’s a balance of the utterly ridiculous — like a grown woman as sexy Boba Fett, wearing a helmet and a militaristic bikini dancing to Guns ‘n’ Roses’s “Welcome to the Jungle,” — and the darkness of a sith lord, lightsaber always firmly planted in cheek.
But just because it’s a parody doesn’t mean it’s not intricately executed. Costumes are sexy replicas of the originals. Imperial guards show significantly more leg, and jedis wear significantly more lingerie (with lightsabers, of course). Stormtroopers have molded female breastplates. Han Solo has breakaway pants. Guns and robots and puppets have all been made specifically for the 90-minute show, 3-D printed or vacuum molded or specially crafted by skilled artisans.
The specificity and dedication to detail makes it all the more enjoyable, but you also don’t have to be a Star Wars fan to appreciate it. It does help that my guest for the evening knows the films like the back of his hand and chuckles warmly at many of the jokes I miss, but it’s by no means a requirement. At times I am clutching my forehead in disbelief at the delightful pathological insanity onstage. Sometimes it feels like living inside the episode of Friends where Ross has a sex fantasy about Princess Leia in the gold bikini, a Star Wars lover’s private fan fiction come to life. But it’s just fun. We have fun. Sometimes that’s all you need.
At the very least, it’s good for the show that opening night is filled with people bursting into cheers and applause — the show receives a standing ovation. Foster says that word of mouth is great for a show like this and helps to popularize it; runs in San Francisco and Los Angeles have had similar successes. On this opening night, it seems to be working, too. People cram into the lobby to have their fill of the show’s merch: think t-shirts with sexy imperial guards, stormtroopers and Princess Leia, and even Wookieerotica, a parody 1970s Playboy-style magazine set in the Star Wars universe (interior advertisements offer “Imperial Strike” cigarettes and “Smirhoth” vodka, as well as a sexy photoshoot set in Tatooine).
For now, “The Empire Strips Back’s” New York residency is the only dedicated space for the show until another opens in Chicago in a few weeks. There will be a long-term residency in Paris this fall, and the tour will continue as well. The ultimate goal, Foster says, is to just keep doing the show. New York has a long history of turning small shows into huge successes, and he mentions Blue Man Group several times when we talk about the potential of “The Empire Strips Back.” “New York is that unique city that can create a Blue Man Group, can generate a “Stomp,” and shows like that can start here small and run and run and, you know, just create a buzz,” he says. “[It’s] a cauldron of creativity.” But an Admiral Ackbar cameo also doesn’t hurt.
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