A heavy red velvet curtain obscures the stage, its heft and yellow tassels a promise of what’s to come. The theater is warm and old-fashioned, with booths and table seating up front. Vegas jazz standards—think Frank Sinatra and “Big Spender”—play as the audience arrives. Finally the lights go down, and a showgirl descends from the ceiling, hovering over the audience on a simple platform. This isn’t Cirque du Soleil, so she won’t be doing flips or anything remotely death-defying. She simply stands there, allowing the audience to bask in her full glittery glory as the shadow of her and her headdress splash across that red velvet curtain. Then the curtain opens. There is Jubilee!, and here I am, on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, trying to understand what’s made the show stand the test of time.
Showgirls fill the stage, and a man in a white sequined tuxedo sings a song rejoicing in the presence of girls (Girls to the right of me, girls to the left of me … Tina for breakfast, Lena for lunch … Girls, girls, girls). The song is outrageously retrograde, a sitting duck for feminist disdain. But there’s no trace of irony or complaint. The audience is too busy being mesmerized by the costumes, which are so elaborate they overload the brain’s ability to process them. The dancers have perfect posture and move almost mechanically, with their arms gracefully outstretched like Christmas tree branches to display the puffs of decoration that hang from their wrists.
In many ways life must have been simpler and happier in this pre-feminism world, when guys were guys and girls were girls. Ironically, the show was created in 1981, a time when women donned shoulder-padded power suits to assert their workplace equality. So, instead of being some relic from the past, Jubilee! is purposefully old-fashioned. By embracing the old ideas of love and romance and ballroom dancing on a cloud, choreographer/producer Donn Arden was reaching backward into an idealized Old Vegas to create a new thing that, ingeniously, felt old. In fact, Jubilee! feels so much like you’re entering a time warp (except for the presence of Chinese tourists who seem to now outnumber Midwesterners) that you fear for the existence of your cell phone.
Another flashback aspect of this show: the boobies, the breastesess, the mammary glands in their height of youthful, firmness, all on display. Sometimes they’re ornamented with crystal-encrusted underwire bras, sometimes they’re bare and sometimes they’re covered, but here’s the shocking part—they all appear to be natural. A few girls are flat as a pancake, which if you think about it, is the natural state for a lithe, athletic dancer who is at least 5 feet 8. At first, to see so many headlights on high beam is shocking. But after watching a few numbers, you get used to them, and settle into a low level of titillation.
Jubilee! isn’t the only showgirl revue in town or the only show where girls go topless. The newer models—X Burlesque, Fantasy and Peepshow—all have more modern qualities, namely sexier dancing and contemporary music. They certainly have their place, but they don’t compete with Jubilee!; it’s simply two different markets. If the X Burlesque is the girl you take on a hot, steamy date, then Jubilee!—which in spite of all its toplessness is classy not raunchy—is the girl you marry.
Just like Vegas itself, Jubilee! is both glamorous and unrepentantly cheesy. The “showboy’s” costumes could win first prize at a gay pride parade. And the women’s costumes could double as a parade float. Bob Mackie designed all 1,000 of them at great expense—he’s the same guy who made costumes for Cher, so could you expect any less? But the outfits alone don’t complete the cheese factor; there’s also over-the-top original music, dance productions and 17 set changes. The Samson and Delilah scene, one of my favorites, is an example of how it all comes together to create timeless entertainment. The cast tells the biblical story of lust and betrayal through song and dance, complete with belly dancers, men in studded codpieces and a three-ton bull idol with glowing eyes. There’s even a scene where everybody dances in a dungeon with whips (perhaps I should take back that comment about the newer shows being sexier). Sure, the show is legitimately entertaining, but it also makes me giggle.
And that’s my favorite part of Jubilee!: It makes me happy. I just can’t hang on to a bad mood when I’m looking at so many smiling faces as they dance and sing.
But on a broader level, the best, most lasting part of Jubilee! is its provenance. While so many A-list Strip shows come from French Canada or Broadway, Jubilee! is pure Vegas. Let’s hope that helps it last another 30 years.