The word “burlesque” might conjure images of an elaborately costumed woman executing a drawn-out striptease, but when burlesque performer Bronze Bettina took the stage at a show in Riverhead last week, she didn’t start her act with a whole lot to peel off.
The New York City-based chanteuse appeared wearing a getup that had all the coverage a string of tinsel provides a Christmas tree and took to the mic for a soulful rendition of “God Bless the Child,” a tune made famous by Billie Holliday.
If nearly baring it all while belting it out — in a voice that would rival any Top 40 pop star, no less — made her nervous, it didn’t show.
“I loved that girl. She was so confident,” audience member Melanie Flynn of Manorville said after the show. “She was like, naked, and there was no shaking to her voice.”
Bettina was one of a half-dozen burlesque artists who performed at the Suffolk Theater Friday night under the banner of the nonprofit arts group Coney Island U.S.A. It marked the fifth time the show has been performed in Riverhead since the renovated theater reopened in 2013 after being shuttered for years.
Bettina and the troupe’s other members are freelance performers, so the artists are frequently hustling for gigs.
“Sometimes it’s champagne,” she said backstage after the show. “Sometimes it’s beer and pretzels.”
Coney Island Burlesque has found a home, at least on a quarterly basis, at the art deco, cabaret-style theater. There, the show features acts like a lip-synching merman contortionist and a sword-swallowing magician. There are also, of course, lots of skin-showing, tassel-wearing ladies.
“We’re bringing a new experience to the East End of Long Island,” said show producer Adam Realman, the night’s emcee. “It’s a rotating cast of performers and the audience tells us who we should bring back.”
One of those returning performers was the super-flexible Topher Bousque.
For a show dominated by female stripteases, it came as somewhat of a surprise that a male contortionist stole the show for so many in Friday’s audience. Bousque presented two numbers: one in which he twisted his body to a haunting version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and another for which he was literally carried on stage wearing a flipper and performed his routine while lip-synching to “Part of Their World” from “The Little Mermaid.” That act segued into a psychedelic hula hoop romp.
“I liked the rubber-band boy; he was great,” exclaimed Robin Haas of Middle Island.
“I loved the merman,” said a local teacher who declined to give her name.
The night culminated with performer Raquel Reed slithering out of a form-fitting black dress and into an ensemble that cannot be described in a family newspaper.
The risqué show is part of an effort to draw bigger names, like singers Ani Difranco and Chris Robinson, and more avant-garde acts, to the theater.
Suffolk Theater executive director Dan Binderman noted the group has carved out a creative niche in Coney Island, hosting events like the famous annual mermaid parade and Burlesque at the Beach.
“It’s a very creative outlet, people are doing fascinating things and it’s fun,” Binderman said. “We’ve had burlesque in a balloon. A woman blew up a balloon and then she got trapped in the balloon. She did a dance inside and then it popped.”
The group is expected to return to Riverhead in August.
“[The Suffolk Theater] isn’t bringing us back too often. They’re smart in the way they are doing it. They’re building interest,” Realman said.
Check the theater’s summer lineup for dates and tickets.