Speakeasy Night with Zoe Lewis and the Bootleggers
by Steve Desroches
The club is swinging tonight. A man in a red fez is plucking away on the bass while Peter Magic sings “Mack the Knife” holding on to the Electro-Voice model microphone. The crowd seated on plush couches, chairs here and there, and in every nook and cranny of the windowless room sip on gin and tonics and other potent concoctions with some swaying back and forth and others singing along. The heavy red drapery colors the room with a warm glow and the smell of rose water hangs in the air. As the song ends the audience claps and cheers with a few raising a glass in honor of the band Zoe Lewis and the Bootleggers, lead by the stylish lady in a tuxedo and top hat. Just then someone yells, “It’s a raid! It’s a raid! Lock the doors!” The ever-present cigarette girl calms everyone down by saying, “Don’t worry. They’ll hit the A-House first.”
The transformation back in time to the Prohibition era is so complete at Speakeasy Nights with Zoe Lewis and her band the Bootleggers that it really is more teleportation. Known and beloved as the “band in a body,” Lewis has always had a flair for and aura of times gone by with her vaudevillian fashions and musical stylings. And Lewis has always pulled deeply for musical influences, not only from different cultures from around the world, but from different time periods, as well. Last year Lewis developed the show with producer David Flower at the Velvet Lounge, and as they say, the rest is history….quite literally. Lewis curates the evening with only songs composed in the 1920s and 1930s and a rotating set list of guest singers and performers. There’s added theatrical flair in costuming and presentation so that, indeed, the audience feels it is in a Prohibition speakeasy, and Velvet is the perfect venue to pull off such an illusion.
Despite Lewis and the Bootlegger’s best attempts to weed out any teetotalers somehow Cynthia Sidebottom (Marissa Skillings) from the Christian Ladies Temperance Society has snuck in to express her disapproval, breaking out into Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” However, by the end of the song Sidebottom is dancing across the stage, letting her hair flow free drinking the bootleg hooch, throwing caution to the wind. Indeed her song about shifting morals and mores is prophetic as the ever-present cigarette girl (Sharon Topper) and the fey Archibald (Michael Burke) sing about changing attitudes with gender and sexuality in “Masculine Women, Feminine Men,” a song from 1926 by Edgar Leslie and James V. Monaco, considered to be one of the first pop songs to talk about gay and lesbian life:
“Masculine women, Feminine men
Which is the rooster, which is the hen?
It’s hard to tell ‘em apart today! And, say!
Sister is busy learning to shave,
Brother just loves his permanent wave,
It’s hard to tell ‘em apart today! Hey, hey!
Girls were girls and boys were boys when I was a tot,
Now we don’t know who is who, or even what’s what!
Knickers and trousers, baggy and wide,
Nobody knows who’s walking inside,
Those masculine women and feminine men!”
Speakeasy Night is full of tongue-in-cheek references to the relative liberalism of the Roaring Twenties, known for its epic party culture despite a conservative reaction to the advancement of women’s rights, looser attitudes towards sex, and a booming economy fueling a fever-pitch level of conspicuous consumption. Prohibition (which lasted in the United States from 1920 to 1933) just pushed the party underground and that is on full display at Speakeasy Night, which could easily be described as an evening of historical reenactment set to an accurate soundtrack.
The evening goes full tilt with Doug Repetti in a sailor suit singing 1927’s “My Blue Heaven,” followed by a crimson-lipped Grace Carney doing a double shot of the moody Hoagy Carmichael song “The Nearness of You” from 1938, followed by “When You Wish Upon A Star,” from 1940, which is the only song from outside the two permitted decades to sneak into the repertoire, mainly because it is such a beautiful song and Carney’s version so spectacular. The evening ends with everyone on stage leading the crowd in the 1926 song “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.”
Leaving Speakeasy Night is always a little jarring, as the performance and ambience is so pitch perfect, encountering the 21st century world outside seems like an anachronism rather than the other way around. Doing the Charleston all the way home or planning to campaign for Democrat Al Smith against President Herbert Hoover feels appropriate. But alas, it’s time to put away the flapper dresses and straw boater hats until the next Speakeasy Night.
Speakeasy Night with Zoe Lewis and the Bootleggers is at the Velvet Lounge and Cabaret, 258 Commercial St., at 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, August 6 and 27 and September 3. Tickets are $12 and available at the door. For more information visit www.zoelewis.com.