Screaming bachelorettes, screaming gays. Picking up underwear and blow-up dolls. As Boylesque T.O. gears up for a new stage show at Buddies this Friday, Paul Aguirre-Livingston spends a night getting cheeky with Toronto’s first all-male revue.
What could I say about Boylesque T.O. that hasn’t already been said before? So I went out with them instead. And by “out,” I mean out on the job. Founded in 2008 by Benjamin Paley, a.k.a. James and the Giant Pasty, the Boylesque T.O. troupe is, well, just how it sounds: burlesque and boys. The group was Canada’s first of its kind when it formed, but their subculture is still a rare, and burgeoning, market within a classic genre. They’re now one of more, but stand out bolder still.
8:37 p.m.: I travel to Yonge and Eglinton to meet the boys in a condo lobby so fancy the mailroom is called a lounge. Tonight, they’ve booked a surprise performance at a bachelorette party off their recent exposure on Canada’s Got Talent. After this, we’ll shimmy our way down to the Village for the group’s debut performance at Woody’s. When Paley walks in, all curls and muscle, he brings with him two cast members: Dew Lily, a former fashion model who looks like the hot mean girl in dance movies you become friends with eventually, and Mickey D Liscious, who looks like the sweetest little heartbreaker.
To say burlesque is having a “moment” is to say that stripping is having a moment. It’s always been here. (And to say one is better than the other makes you an idiot; they’re two sides of the same coin.) But more people are paying attention. The Burlesque Brunch at The Cadillac Lounge in Parkdale on the second Sunday of every month always attracts a full house. And admirers flock just as fast to the Great Canadian Burlesque’s monthly (happening June 28, BTW), just as they did to The Scandelles‘ high-concept productions in recent years.
Yes, there’s Dita Von Teese, and that Christina Aguilera movie I didn’t entirely hate. And Montreal’s Blood Ballet Cabaret is making waves, too. The male niche, however, has enjoyed an unremitting uprising in our oversexed metropolises, attracting more and more men—as members of female-led companies, all-male troupes, or debonair soloists—at every big industry festival and competition, and in your local YouTube search results. It’s stage art. It’s performance. It can be comedy. It can be sexy. It can be downright silly, but salacious. And yes, it’s dudes nude. (Okay, semi-nude.)
9 p.m.: Needless to say, I’m put to work… guarding the bathroom door. Mickey D needs sheets of letter-size paper for his act, so off I go to beg the concierge. (I eventually discover it’s to cover his junk during a disgruntled-and-disrobing-businessman bit set to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”) For smaller bookings like this, Boylesque T.O. breaks the act into a series of solo performances rather than big group numbers. Fifteen minutes later, the three emerge in business attire. Are we ready?
9:06 p.m.: Now I’ll play the role of stagehand, responsible for cueing the music from an iPod alarm clock that had to be emergency-fetched from someone’s bedside, and then collecting the lost clothing. The bride-to-be is blindfolded and—ta da—surprise! Paley performs last, sitting her on a chair in the centre of the makeshift stage and… let’s just say I totally get the “Giant Pasty” thing now. The ladies, including an 18-year-old relative, actually enjoy it in a way you’ve never seen on, like, any sitcom. They’re taking pictures and screaming because… now there’s literally penis in the air, not just on the party hats. Before we leave, the boys gather around for pictures. “Okay on one, two, three… say, ‘The schlong is long!’”
Does anyone want a swig of my boot flask?
10:25 p.m.: Woody’s. It’s the first time Boylesque T.O. has graced the stage that houses such prestigious competitions as Best Ass and Best Legs. They’ve performed virtually everywhere else—from The Gladstone Hotel (where they perform at the annual Be Mein Valentine show with Skin Tight Outta Sight, Canada’s longest-running burlesque troupe) to fundraisers with Olivia Chow and beyond. We talk about nerves a bit; about how you can never predict an audience’s reaction, and why gay crowds can be particularly difficult to anticipate. We talk about performing in Oshawa, and changing into costumes next to grease vats. We talk about last weekend’s adventure to Kitchener, where the area’s drag matrons bought endless drinks and they all rolled around in glitter. We talk about the time they performed a set during an underwear party (check your garments at the door) at The Barn nightclub down the street, and how everyone stood dead still because the irony was lost on no one. (A reverse-strip may have been better?)
10:45 p.m.: I’m discussing the differences in expectations from a gay audience with Mickey D Liscious, who tells me about friends whose potential partners said they would cut them loose if they ever did burlesque or—even worse?—drag. “They’re just afraid of their own dicks,” he laughs. We debate theories on the gay experience, dissecting how the conditioning of connecting primarily through our sexuality is heightened, and that perhaps it’s key to how we’re able to relate and/or feel about ourselves and each other. Take Woody’s itself as a venue, for example, where monitors flash gay porn or, on the night we’re here, a steamy photo shoot with rough, buff, and tough rugby stars. Sex is, quite literally, all around us. Would the audience, then, appreciate the tease of burlesque? The implicit, rather than the explicit?
11:05 p.m.: Pre-show, the boys prep downstairs in a private washroom-cum-dressing room. I meet Wrong Note Rusty and the Trusty Trombone (pictured above), another cast member who arrives to round out the solo performances with his marching band-inspired act complete with, well, an actual trombone he played in high school. Mickey D decides he’s going to do his Superman act, complete with blow-up doll(-cum-slash-victim), set to that Our Lady Peace song. There’s a drag queen also occupying a stall. There’s more ass. Ex-boyfriend drama. I feel just like Sally Bowles.
11:27 p.m.: I agree to once again run around picking up clothing and, yes, the sweaty underwear. Show time. Each performance is better than at the bachelorette. Sexier. “Well, when the house lights aren’t on and you’re elevated above the crowd, it releases something else,” says Dew Lily (pictured below), who is the night’s silent star, and the most spry and acrobatic of the group as far as I can tell. The crowd loved Boylesque, and while some of the poor tourist faces looked confused, the majority look enthralled. “It’s a welcome diversion from our usual drag programming,” says one of the beefy bartenders afterwards. Oh ya? “I’m with them, you know…”
It’s good practice. This Friday (June 15), Boylesque T.O. will mount O MANADA!, their latest full-scale ensemble stage show at Buddies that will be both a Pride primer and a salute to the Great White North. “I can honestly say that is my favourite Boylesque T.O. shows ever—like the best content,” explains Paley as he walks me through the four-month rehearsal process. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we take the things that are near and dear to our hearts as Canadians and work with them?’” That means you can expect acts featuring a Mountie, a Tim Hortons barista, “politically-incorrect seal clubbing,” and a burlesque retelling of The Hockey Sweater. Plus other surprises, like Mickey D as Jack Layton. (“I celebrate Jack,” he interjects from the next table, citing the late NDP leader’s influence on his life and future political aspirations. And yes, Olivia Chow is invited.)
So what do all these boys have that makes them great performers? What does it take to make you look less like a boyfriend stripping after a few beers and more like… Magic Mike? “It takes a little bit of guts, and a willingness to put yourself out there, to take your clothes off in front of people,” Paley tells me. “It takes some sort of storytelling ability and talent. The best acts are the ones where you get to tell a story with the act. You can do it in a variety of different ways: with your body, really bright ideas and concepts, or dance or movement.”
“You should try it once,” urges Mickey D before we part ways. I can only manage to shake my head.
But when I peel off my jeans later that night, things felt a little different.
Boylesque T.O. performs O MANADA! this Friday (June 15) at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St.). $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Find out more here.