Arts & Events

DINNER THEATER REVIEW: The Burlesque Spirit of 'The Soiled Dove' Under the Big Top

Ken Bullock
Friday June 16, 2017 - 11:24:00 AM

Under the Big Top at Alameda Point, over 40 period-clad performers assemble to put on a show, 'The Soiled Dove,' for their audience--some there for dinner, some just for the fun--a latter-day evocation of San Francisco's notorious and long-running Barbary Coast and its louche entertainments, especially from the Gilded Age that mocked late Victorian strictures and the beginnings of what later was dubbed The Jazz Age ...

Arriving for dinner and greeted by a personable staff (who later take a vivacious role in the evening's entertainment), surrounded by other diner-spectators, in an array of dress from casual to period get-up, if just a top hat or bonnet, or evening dress for a few, the expansive sense of what the Vau de Vire Society, which produces the Edwardian Ball, has in mind for its patrons begins to sink in, provoking both a relaxed feeling and attentiveness. The audience has plenty of time for drinks from the capacious (and reasonably priced) no-host bar and the tasty, imaginative fare served with easygoing grace, but there's more than just food and drink to amuse in the enormous tent, even before showtime. 

Because the entertainment starts quickly enough, with an excellent acrobat, eccentric like an Edward Gorey grotesque, balancing on chairs piled ever higher above the small platform in the midst of dinner tables, while he moves and gestures like a mechanical man appealing or responding to the audience.

Meanwhile, the music's warming up and the Soiled Doves--old Barbary Coast monicker for ladies of the evening--begin to put in an appearance along the balustrade of one of the three elevated stages at the front of the tent, where by the end of dinner, the action will begin, finally swirling around and thriugh the audience as the show reaches its climax a couple of hours later.

And the talent runs deep enough in a cast that's spread thick between musicians and singers, acrobats and contortionists, chorus girls and boys and slapstick comics, some of the performers doubling, making it hard to give pride of place to one type of act or a particular performer over another.

There's a big emphasis on burlesque, the spirit of the Barbary Coast, both coy and assured, maybe more so than any burlesque revival show I've seen, this spirit often more a light touch on everything, or more concentrated in some acts, giving the evening much of its savor.

There's a nonstop stream of acts--a seductive and humorous singing pole dancer, comic fisticuffs by slapstick patrons of the Soiled Doves, Emperor Norton in full regalia raving onstage--but his speech resembles a little some Gilbert & Sullivan patter--surrounded by a bevy of chorus ghirls, who process with him through the audience. Later there's a beefy male hoop dancer, a beautiful and demure aerialist on a stage in the audience, succeeded by ladies performing elaborate tricks on hoops floating in the air above the tables, a funny and scary female aerialist swigging a little brown jug who somehow manages to recover from a multitude of slips and tumbles above ...

There's a lovely singer standing at an upright piano, who makes music and song from the stage that becomes backup for a gorgeous, ivory-skinned contortionist in the midst of the audience, The lead male singer with the excellent big band up above the crowd descends at one point as a waterfront revival preacher with his female flock--and chorus lines do sailor dances and the can-can in ways that would make Offenbach blush ...

The show culminates with the whole cast and all the servers jiving on all stages on all levels and throughout the tent, the MC in his tall top hat jigging onstage in the midst of the audience, excitedly calling out the players as they single themselves out in the fray, finally with a stunning electric violinist in showgirl garb standing atop the bar in a musical duel with the singer, also on violin, high above the crowd on the highest stage at the opposite end of the big top, with the band pumping out rhythms behind him.

It was opening night, and it took awhile for the dynamics and segues between attractions to gel, as well as the sound. The show's brilliance was most apparent in the last third. More of a sense of contrast would've helped; the variety of acts would be better supported by it. And the casual atmosphere had a downside in some confusion of seating and standing when the show-only guests came in. Spectators standing to get a better view, or dancing "in the aisles" added to the carnivalesque sense, but blocked the view for those seated.

But these are easily corrected caveats. 'The Soiled Dove' spills over with talent and action for those who like their entertainment more lavish and frantic than a three-ring circus.


The Soiled Dove takes place in a 50 foot high, 125 foot round big top from a seventh generation Italian circus family in Tortona.

Spectators are encouraged to dress in period attire. Four course dinner is provided by Work of Art, no-host bar by Monarch Bar, music by JazzMafia/Realistic Orchestra with B-3 organist Mighty Dave and cameos by local performers.

7:30 dinner, 9:30 show, Fridays and Saturdays, June 9-July 1, Tortona Big Top, 2100 Ferry Point, Alameda Free parking. $50 show only; $130 dinner & show.