After having to cancel two shows last year in March 2020, Voices of the Desert is making a return to the stage with a cabaret-style production with Spellbound Burlesque and a show focused on musical greats.
Everything’s Coming Up Burlesque will be held during the weekend of Phoenix Pride, on Nov. 6 at the Community Church of Hope and Nov. 7 at Cruisin’ 7th.
Viva La Diva will take place at the Phoenix Center for the Arts during the weekend of Nov. 12 to 14.
Artistic Director Keith Clark says with the cabaret-style burlesque show, his group and the burlesque troupe wanted to bring their artforms to new audiences.
“Bridging the gaps is part of our mission statement. We wanted to bring different communities together,” Clark says.
The show chorus, which Ron Casola started in 2008, provides a space for LGBT and allied performers to sing and do theatrical-style numbers with costumes, props and choreography.
During the cabaret-style burlesque show, members of the chorus will sing music that is stylistically similar to Postmodern Jukebox while the burlesque dancers bring tantalizing striptease numbers.
They will be accompanied by a bass player and drummer.
Audience members will have a chance to see burlesque performers such as Pepper Mint Schnapps, Dottie May Duitt, Matt Finish, Luna Lovebutton and Maxi Millions.
Throughout the night, chorus members will be showcased through solo and small group numbers.
“It gives my choir singers who are good soloists the opportunity to develop their cabaret skills. That’s first and foremost in my mind. Second, I really value what the burlesque performers do, the art form that they have with their talent. I think it’s a nice combination between what we do and what they do,” Clark says.
The chorus’ journey with cabaret singing started in 2018 with an eight-eight workshop, in which singers worked on solos and received critiques. It culminated in a backyard cabaret fundraiser.
“That really gave them the courage to pick a song, make sure it is in the right key and make sure they were feeling it and understanding the song. Cabaret singing is a lot different from singing a solo,” Clark says. “It’s really good for the choir singers who want to branch out and do different things to get them to stretch.”
The chorus’ diva-themed show will follow an emerging performer’s journey as she learns what it means to be a “diva” from greats from different eras. The “divas” featured in the show will include Bette Midler, Pink, Boy George, Nancy Sinatra, Madonna, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Adele, Demi Lovato, Elvis, Patti LuPone, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Tina Turner, Gloria Estefan, Miley Cyrus, Cher and Stevie Wonder.
Members of the chorus had the opportunity to choose which singer they wanted to represent.
The show pays tribute to the divas while also playfully poking fun at them.
The chorus’ members are continually trying to push themselves, adding new skills such as singing solos and dancing. Clark says that he encourages them to try new things and expand on their abilities.
“That’s the joy of what I do, when I can see the growth and see people pushing themselves and stretching,” Clark says.
Do-it-yourself aesthetic in costumes and song list
Like with other shows, the chorus members are creating their own looks.
They often get creative and try to think outside-the-box. For the Tina Turner medley, they will be wearing wigs made out of newspaper, and a Bette Midler number will feature chorus member Cynthia Richards in a mermaid outfit.
The chorus has always tried to bring something different in all of its shows.
In the past, choir members have worn pool noodle wigs; decorated Christmas trees while performing; acted as if they were caught in a tornado during a Land of Oz section of one show; worn giant noses on their heads; performed with a colorful parachute; dressed up as different types of foods; roller skated in choir robes onstage; had a food fight with each other while singing; used varying sizes of Audrey II for a medley of Little Shop of Horrors and staged a chandelier of hula hoops and Mardi Gras beads falling to the floor for a The Phantom of the Opera number.
The group is especially known for its colorful shoes and puppets, which it often brings into its shows.
While the chorus has fun together, they also put in hard work, often rehearsing multiple times a week when preparing for shows.
Members are expected to memorize music, sing and dance, although they have a choice of which songs they want to do.
“The nice thing about this chorus is you’re not going to be chastised if you don’t do it exactly right. If you’re close, and you put your personality into it, that’s all that matters. We’re not looking for perfection at all. We’re looking for people who want to have fun with it,” Clark says.
At the moment, the chorus is smaller in size than in the past. Typically, it has around 30 members, but right now, it has about 20.
Coming back after COVID
Clark says that some members have been hesitant to return yet because of COVID.
During the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the chorus had video meetings to stay in touch.
They also created videos of chorus members singing “Unruly Heart” from Prom and “Truly Brave.”
The videos were made through social distancing, with no more than three people at a time getting together to film.
“What we would do is have the individuals learn their track, then they would come to my house, and we would record their track. Then we would go outside, play their track to them, and they would have to lip-sync to their track while they were being videotaped. We did that with 13 to 15 people, and we had an editor put it together and make a video montage,” Clark says.
Clark says through these videos, the chorus was able to keep singing and connect with each other.
“We were trying to find how we could stay together, stay engaged and yet abide by the health CDC guidelines,” Clark says.
Longtime members of the chorus, including Kathy Huskey, were excited to be able to start rehearsing together again in person this summer.
“It was so good to see each other, for one. Part of surviving Covid for me was singing, whether it was to tracks or to music I love. To get together and to hear the harmonies again, it was like, ‘Yes, this is why we’re back. This is why we do it,’” Huskey says.
“There’s something to be said for being in the same space and creating music together. There’s nothing like it,” says Erin Strong, the chorus’ producer.
Members of the group are involved in the planning of shows. An artistic committee made up of chorus members brainstorms ideas, and throughout the creative process, singers will contribute their visions to the shows.
“I like to think of our productions as a cumulative effort of everybody in the group. I think that an individual when they bring something into the group production, it just adds so much to it. They do that constantly. I hardly ever say no to an idea because if that’s their idea, and they own it and have passion around it, it’s going to just make for a better show,” Clark says.
Richards says for her, having an open and accepting environment to explore different ideas is important.
“I think because of the respect that everybody gives each other, it’s a safe place to try things, even if they aren’t good. It’s really nice because nobody looks at the other person in a negative way,” Richards says.
Rachel Cohen, the group’s choreographer, says because of the contributions of different chorus members, shows have a variety of different types of numbers.
“You aren’t seeing one person’s style the whole show. It’s great that we share choreography because that way you don’t see the same movements over and over again. We have very different styles of choreography. It just makes the show more visually interesting,” Cohen says.