NYC's Smash Sister Act Swings Into the Birchmere
First it was the Andrews sisters, then the Lennon sisters entertained us, followed by the Pointer sisters and recently the news-making Spears sisters. Look out and move over girls, the spotlight has shifted to the Pontani sisters, a trio making headlines in New York and around the globe with their new Las Vegas-style nightclub show, “This is Burlesque.” The Pontanis will perform locally on Valentine’s Day, February 14, at the Birchmere.
You would never see the Pontani sisters on the Lawrence Welk Show, with their racy costumes and flirty humor, but at the New York Corio nightclub, crowds have packed in each weekend since the October 1st debut to view their nostalgic burlesque stage show that hearkens back to vaudeville and smoky lounge clubs. This rebirth of burlesque as popular entertainment can be credited to the trend-setter Angie Pontani, who founded the “Pontani Sisters” in the 1990’s as she was starting her stage career.
“The timing and the stars lined up for us,” says Angie Pontani, the youngest of the sisters. “I pulled together my sister Helen who was a modern dancer, the opposite of burlesque, and my sister Tara who was studying special education at Columbia University.” Together, they developed a stage show influenced by old films.
“Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly were my heroes,” Pontani shares. “Along with Elvis and Liberace, anything over the top and extreme — those jumpsuits were ‘burlesque,'” she laughs. “My sisters and I made headdresses. We danced around wearing [them].”
Their shows earned the ‘burlesque’ label from a New York newspaper and the term stuck.
“I didn’t even know what the word ‘burlesque’ meant,” says Pontani, who goes on to voice what the term means to her today. “Burlesque is about being entertained. It’s glamour, mixed with comedy and music.” She says that is why this style is so popular.
It’s also why Angie is so successful at drawing crowds, having sold out The Burlesque-A-Pades' national and international tours, the annual New York Burlesque Festival, and shows such as The Holiday Pageant. She recently played her own character on the new CW hit, “Gossip Girl.”
Comedian Murray Hill co-hosts their stage show, keeping the audience roaring with his unique style of interactive humor which has inducted him into Paper Magazine’s Nightlife Hall of Fame, and earned national television spots, such as his long-running hit “The Murray Hill Show,” performances at Mo Pitkins, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah concerts and more.
The Valentine’s Day show offers locals a chance to meet the cast and have a memorable hot date.
“The show is about romance and is very ‘love-centric,'”says Pontani. “ It’s ‘circus-y’, filled with variety of singing, dancing, skits and comedy. It’s all about glitz and glamour and Las Vegas, extreme show girl costumes and rhinestones.”
Along with Angie Pontani and Hill, other performers in the act include a skimpy costumed Miss Saturn — a could-be Guiness record-breaker, known for spinning 40 hula hoops around herself while attempting to catch more — and tapping tornado Helen Pontani. There's also the risqué sailor dancer and cousin Peekabo Pointe, filling in for the third Pontani sister, Tara, who is taking time off after giving birth to twin boys. Manhattan singer Melody Sweets rounds out the roster.
The show combines the best of both Angie Pontani’s previous solo act, which was performed on tour throughout Australia and Spain this past year, and Murray Hill’s hits from “The Murray Hill Show” in New York, along with beauties in sequined costumes and fishnet hose — and the Fisherman Xylophonic Orchestra, their four-piece 1920s-era swing band.
The band, described by Murray Hill as a tiki lounge band, will play a variety of music, from classic blues to Bon Jovi to Neil Diamond.
“I sing ‘Love on the Rocks’ as part of a Neil Diamond ballad,” says Hill. “It has a fresh quality to it because it’s all new numbers.” Hill says that audience participation makes each show unique and the audiences also enjoy his impersonations of celebrities and improvisations, as they get to guess who he is portraying.
“Angie and I both do an old school, retro-show business, fully contained nightclub act,” Hill explains. “It’s not lewd. It’s classy entertainment.”
Pontani says she is inspired by old classic Vegas shows and is sometimes able to incorporate their themes into her current shows. She is currently working on a number where a gigantic oyster shell opens on the stage and she pops out like a pearl, wearing a 5,000 rhinestone covered costume, wowing the audience with her glamour.
“Burlesque is a form of female glamour,” says Pontani. “It’s satire, group can-cans and a parody of the times. It’s not just a sole strip tease, it’s production numbers, anything funny, light-hearted and tasteful.”
In years past, from 1840 to the 1960’s, burlesque was focused on music and humor, and strived for audience laughter. In the 19th Century, the word “burlesque” referred to comic plays, including non-musicals. In the 1840s, the lower and middle classes were entertained with these satires, which poked fun at upper class operas, theatre and the elite. “Burlesquing” meant ridiculing, laughing at established ways of society. They relied more on talented stars than on polished scripts.
From the 1880s to present day, comedies and skits were written featuring situations of the lower to middle working class and included suggestive innuendo, or linguistic idiosyncrasies. “Who’s On First,” by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, is the most famous burlesque skit, wherein the pair humorously confuse baseball names and terms.
Now, the Pontani’s “This is Burlesque” and the performing sisters are achieving their own fame and are well known in New York. Pontani says that she and her sisters grew up dancing on Coney Island and watching Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
“Our family was not a show business family growing up, but an eccentric family,” she shares. “Our parents were very stylish in the 1940s and 50s style. It’s natural for us to perform in that style.”