Though it draws from the style and substance of the old-school striptease shows popularized by Gypsy Rose Lee, the neo-burlesque cabaret of Foxy Veronica's Peach Pies owes at least as much to the art form's even older vaudevillian roots and the shock-and-giggle comedy of South Park and Family Guy.
Burlesque was brought to America in the 1860s by saucy Brit Lydia Thompson and her goofy theater troupe the British Blondes, which parodied traditional dramatic productions with gender-bending roles and revealing outfits. While it became associated with striptease in the 1920s, burlesque also assimilated the wacky side of vaudeville, cabaret and minstrel shows before being replaced by pole dancers and Pay Per View. In the early '90s, cabaret-style burlesque re-emerged in New York and San Francisco, armed with tattoos, riot grrrl feminism and a punk-rock attitude. Since then, it's been catching on at clubs around the world - and here in Madison, which at least three cabaret-burlesque troupes call home.
Like other burlesque revivalists, the Peach Pies begin with elements of vaudeville and cabaret, then add some thoroughly modern cheese: '50s beach-bunny flicks, swingin' '60s mod movies, '70s sitcoms and '80s music videos, topped off with high kicks and pasties. The troupe's Fourth of July performance at the Frequency featured a postmodern twist on Madonna's "Like a Virgin" stage act, the double entendres of "The Pussy Cat Song" from A Dirty Shame, and a rousing live rendition of "America, Fuck Yeah" from Team America: World Police, complete with fake guns, Santa beards and strategically placed stars and stripes.
Isthmus recently spoke with the group's ringleader, Foxy Veronica (a.k.a. Mercury Players Theatre actress and director Jessica Jane Witham), about how Peach Pies are made and what goes into producing an over-the-top performance nearly every week.
How did the Peach Pies get started?
I was approached about four years ago by a gentleman who wanted to do a burlesque show at a local venue. I know a lot of theater people in town, so I made a few calls and got a group together. It turned out he wanted a very different style of show from what we'd expected, something a lot more G-string-oriented, so the whole project fell through, but I decided to keep it going anyway. Me and one of the other girls involved worked at the Anchor Inn at the time, so we started booking shows there, and the rest is history.
What makes a good Peach Pie?
A good attitude is key. We try to distance ourselves from the traditional and cultural stereotypes of burlesque. We don't want to be viewed as strippers. Yeah, some of us take off some of our clothes - after all, it's a big crowd-pleaser - but the essence of the show is about humor and putting on a great show.
Each one of the ladies in the group is ridiculously talented at singing or dancing or some other type of performance, so that's our focus: bringing out the absolute best in each one of our girls. So, in a nutshell, the best Peach Pies are sexy and sassy with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. They're strong and funny women with a great sense of humor.
What happens at a typical Peach Pies rehearsal?
Oh boy, a lot of chitchat. We're six women and one gentleman who are all friends and all kind of hyper at times, so it's amazing how we actually get work done. We talk about what we saw on TV, what's made us laugh lately, then we bust out the singing and dancing.
How do you guys muster up the courage to strip onstage?
It's something you sort of learn to do - and it sells, which doesn't hurt. There's one girl in the group who wouldn't even show her stomach when we started, but now she's ripping off her clothes. When it comes down to it, losing the clothes is a liberating thing.
The show really didn't start with the strippage; we sort of evolved in that direction as we became more comfortable with ourselves. Each girl in the group decides how much stripping she's comfortable with, and nobody gets completely naked. Other than that, a lot of the guts and courage come from the audience, and from the occasional Jägerbomb.
Where do you draw inspiration as a performer?
I went to school at American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, so my background is in drama and musical theater. However, I draw a ton of inspiration from the other women in the show. The way we work together is inspiring, too. One person will say something like, "Hey, I want to do 'It's Raining Men.' Can you help me?" and we figure out how to make it work.
I'm also inspired by Madonna, especially her performance at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, which led to the "Like a Virgin" number. It's the only number I've been doing nonstop from day one.
What's on the horizon for the Peach Pies? An international tour? A spread in Venus magazine? A guest spot on Saturday Night Live?
Merchandise! We're hopefully going to have T-shirts, hot pants, and all sorts of other goodies. Personally, I'm shooting for beer cozies.
We're trying to keep up our monthly schedule of shows, but there are some bigger plans in the works, too. To make a long story short, we're in negotiations about how far to branch out. We're thinking about a tour, maybe of the East Coast, which has a ton of clubs dedicated to "caburlesque" like ours. Wherever we go, we're going to knock some socks off.
Foxy Veronica's Peach Pies
High Noon Saloon, Thursday, Nov. 27, 10 pm
Shamrock Bar, Thursday, Dec. 4, 10 pm