Dangerous Dames

Going behind the ‘seen’ to understand the unexpected magic of The Viper Vixens

Invited to peek in on a rehearsal for The Viper Vixens, a new topless act at O’Sheas, I was eager to ogle the perks that derive from such an assignment: naked boobies.

Sure, I’d heard these lovely ladies brandished weapons. But they had to be marzipan props intended to give the burlesque formula a visual twist. Well, um, no. These femme fatales really do know how to swing katana, wave razor-bladed fans, spin fighting sticks, fire crossbows and crack bullwhips. The beautiful blond Vixen, code name Sidewinder (a.k.a. Andrea Caldwell-Hall), snapped her whip with such ferocity that I dropped my tape recorder, shattering it into pieces. In sum, when World War III breaks out or the undead plague hits, I don’t think these armed pretties will have any trouble adjusting to post-apocalyptic environs. An erotic and highly imaginative comic book come to life, the Viper Vixens are poised to strike.

And somehow I don’t think I’ll ask them to compensate me for the recorder.

Not to say the Vixens—part burlesque dancers, martial-arts warriors and snake-themed superheroines—are unapproachable. Despite gorgeous, slice-first-ask-questions-later exteriors, they’re friendly, smart, eager to explain the details of their respective weapons. There were moments when I felt I’d stepped backstage during a Charlie’s Angels stage revue or into a naughty ninja-esque adaptation of La Femme Nikita. Each of the 14 numbers involves weapons (except the yoga sequence, more on that later), and the entire show is relentlessly, vividly choreographed.

And the music! My ears were in heaven. Unlike other burlesque productions on the Strip (which shall remain nameless), there’s no cheese to hamper singer Deena Carey (code name Cottonmouth), who rather adorably rehearses with a plastic toy Echo Mike. (She doesn’t even really need a mic; her voice is that powerful.) Every song she tackles—Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz,” Mötley Crüe’s “Looks That Kill,” Muse’s “Uprising”—is cool. Don’t know if I’m allowed to give it away, but one of the dance numbers relies on Rage Against the Machine’s “Renegades of Funk,” during which Ottavio Gesmundo (King Cobra) transforms into a evil blade-whirling dervish.

If the Vixens are Angels, then their Charlie is clearly Gesmundo. Born into a circus family, Gesmundo is a longtime Las Vegas performer whose dancing credits go all the way back to the late-’80s-era Lido de Paris show at the since-imploded Stardust. Since then, he’s done everything—from stunt-directing and choreographing the touring Spider-Man Live! show, to presenting his crossbow act on The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien. More impressively, Gesmundo is a certified Ashtanga yoga instructor, going so far as to create a uniquely integrated yoga/martial arts system, Dragon Vinyasa.

“Most of what you see in The Viper Vixens started with yoga,” says Gesmundo after rehearsal. “After getting certified six years ago, my wife and I were looking for something edgier. So we decided to incorporate weapons training.”

Gesmundo’s wife is Naomi Brenkman-Gesmundo, (code name Black Mamba), who resembles Lucy Liu if the actress had studied martial arts since the age of 4 and studied Royal Academy of Ballet in Amsterdam. In other words, Black Mamba is a badass, whom Gesmundo met in Amsterdam while performing together in Aida. They went on to perform together in Spider-Man Live! During the crossbow act, she shoots arrows at balloons positioned next to Gesmundo’s crotch. Together they’ve prepared and planned this show for the last two years.

“Yoga centers you,” Gesmundo says. “It’s a great tool for many reasons, and when you integrate it with martial arts, you go from a quick breath and then calm, from a moment of fighting to one of concentration. Each complements the other.”

Gesmundo insists the Vixens start their rehearsals with yoga, as it relaxes the mind and body so that the dancers can “get centered.” Flexibility and improvement of the body are side benefits.

“We even used yoga during the audition,” says Gesmundo, who says nearly 30 dancers tried out. “They knew this would be a topless show, so everybody showed up in their tights and high heels and makeup ready to kick ass, and I said, ‘OK, now take off your shoes, we’re going to do some yoga now.’ They were like, ‘What?’”

Using yoga as part of an audition process enabled everyone to relax. It also gave Gesmundo an opportunity to see the dancers’ strengths and weaknesses and how well they might be suited for a show that is demanding—of body and mind.

Don’t laugh, but The Viper Vixens is like that—physical and conceptual. It’s raucously sexy in one number, then silkily erotic the next. There’s no visual whiplash, though; it just works, seamlessly, elegantly.

“We wanted to create a show that was sexy, but not something that had been done before,” Gesmundo says. “A show that would bring together all our interests in a compelling way—the crossbow act, dance, yoga, martial arts, music. That’s why we devoted more than a few months to weapons training alone.

In the intimate theater at O’Sheas (it seats 100), audiences will be dazzled by a blend of sexiness and danger. The performers are hot, too. Ballet-trained Copperhead (Amy Brunner) is a blast to behold. Former Ke$ha dancer Diamondback (Ashley Collingwood-Gaudette) is a deadly delight. So is this town ready for a team of armed burlesque dancers who seem like they can easily devour Chuck Norris’ lunch?

“It will be up close and personal,” Gesmundo says. “We’re going to get to know our audiences really well, I think.”

Watch out for that bullwhip, Vegas.

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