Some entertainers bare their souls on stage, others their hearts.
The stars of Tainted Cabaret routinely bare a bit more than that.
“The easiest way to describe [burlesque] is as a theatrical strip tease,” says Shirley Gnome, a musical comedian who will emcee an evening at The Secret Group with her traveling band of avant-garde performers. “It combines elements of vaudeville and performance art and just full-on peeling. It’s very much at the direction of the performer, who is often choreographing their own pieces. Very much an act of agency and autonomy and artistic expression, mixed with a lot of the naked arts.”
Coming off a successful run in New York, the Tainted Cabaret started as a dream from star Ula Uberbusen. “The act is a full show with each of us performing in our own special ways,” explains the Canadian-born Gnome. “I am primarily a musical comedian, I sing silly songs and I’ll be emceeing. And Ula Uberbusen, she’s the producer of the show and she’ll be performing burlesque, along with James and the Giant Pasty, who is a Toronto Boy-lesque performer and then, we’ll be doing some ensemble burlesque and pantomimes and in some cities, we’ll be having a guest act. Its just a big ol’ grab bag variety extravaganza of weirdness!”
For their show at The Secret Group, Gnome confirms, the special guest performers will some of Houston’s own burlesque superstars: Dem Damn Dames’ Tifa Tittlywinks and the “King of Sin” himself, J.D. Hickcock. “That’s right, we have two guests - we had to supersize it for Houston! Everything’s bigger, including our show.”
But how did the guitar-playing Gnome get hooked up with the traveling madness? ” I met James when I was emceeing the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival,” she recalls, hazily. “He was a performer there, and we made friends. He’s sort of the connector, or the cabaret lubricant, bringing us all together. [James and Ula] did this tour last year, the very first Tainted Cabaret tour. Then they wanted to bring in a new act, and James suggested me! I actually hadn’t met Ula until I got to New York for rehearsals! But we made fast friends because we hit it off right away; we starting talking about poo almost instantly! Always know you have a friend when that doesn’t seem weird.”
Aside from the fecal-related discussions, Gnome has made her name plucking innocently quirky tunes that reward listening closely, songs like 'Coming Clean’, ‘Sex With You’ and ‘Hipster Vagina!’ Her latest album entitled Taking It Up A Notch reached number No. 1 on the iTunes Comedy Charts in Canada.
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Gnome says her love of music and jokes have always been intertwined. “It was always a shared loved. I came at music pretty late, I first picked up a guitar at 20 or 21. I just wanted to make my friends laugh, and kept thinking up silly little ideas. With country music, it's great because all you need is three chords and you can write a song! I got down E, A and D, this is perfect - let's go! People always ask me – do you want to play like serious music? I’m like nah. That’s not what my muse is telling me.”
But just because musical comedy came naturally to Gnome, don’t think anyone can run out to the clubs and strum their way to glory. “Musical comedy can be difficult because you need to be good at BOTH those things. Nobody has sat through more bad musical comedy than I have; let me tell ya! I have seen some really bad stuff. People can be really, really funny, but not be able to hold a tune down or people are so gifted musically, but the jokes aren’t there. If you only have one, it can be really hard on the audience.
"For me, the music part is the easiest. There’s only 12 chords, only 12 keys, there’s only so much you can do. There are formulas, it is math and it does sort of work itself out. As far as the comedy part, I relate to stand-ups in that sense. You really are refining your lyrics or telling your story sequentially so it does unfold properly. You just have to fit inside the structure of music, and that’s the real crux of it.”
The performance is scheduled for Friday, April 5 at 8 p.m. at The Secret Group, 2101 Polk. For information, call 832-898-4688 or visit thesecretgrouphtx.com. $15-30.