"We're all mad here," says the Cat to Alice.
If you don't remember that line from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, no matter; you'll experience it firsthand at Théâtre XIV, where director Austin McCormick has created his newest, grandest, most lavish production to date — Queen of Hearts, a sexy riff on Alice's adventures in Wonderland and the curious characters she meets there. Featuring a seemingly endless cavalcade of classy burlesque acts and scandalous comedy routines that will appeal to adults of every sexual persuasion, Queen of Hearts is the best date-night show in New York City right now.
Company XIV, the brainchild of Austin McCormick, specializes in burlesque done with a Louis XIV aesthetic — think Marie Antoinette decadence meets Weimar-era cabaret. McCormick is a modern-day master of the genre, as is his troupe, a tribe of superbly talented singers, dancers, and acrobats who know how to amuse and titillate while making an occasional jab at the political villain du jour. Like McCormick's previous shows such as Cinderella and Ferdinand, Queen of Hearts is a sophisticated smorgasbord of smart, sexy performances seasoned with a naughty pinch of S&M.
The journey down this rabbit hole begins at the entrance of a derelict-looking, graffitied building in Brooklyn; you'll know you're in the right place from the Moulin Rouge-style letters, XIV, that shine light onto Troutman Street. Once inside, a bevy of scantily clad, high-heeled hosts and servers (you'll see them onstage later) with powdered faces and fabulous coifs greet guests and pour intoxicating libations, such as the mezcal-based "Curiouser & Curiouser," before escorting you though red-lit, frankincense-scented rooms to your seat in the main theater hall. You'll quickly forget that you just stepped off a street in Brooklyn.
Lithe dancer Lexxe (sporting silvery, punkish hair) sets the show's sassy mood as a sexually curious Lady Alice, a young woman new to a world of libidinous pleasures. As Natalia Kills's "Wonderland" plays, Alice wakes up and chases a White Rabbit (Michael Cunio, who rocks the stage with Tom Waits's "Yesterday Is Here") through a series of mirrored wardrobes (the first scene of Zane Pihlstrom's ever-changing set).
Once in Wonderland, Alice meets a tasty morsel named "Eat Me" (Ashley Dragon performing a mesmerizing act on a Cyr wheel), and stumbles into a comically sexy scene with Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (Nicholas and Ross Katen in a hilarious dance routine). Soon after, a seductive character named "Drink Me" (Laszlo Major as a hunky merman) dazzles Alice and the audience as he appears to swim in the air while spinning seductively on a dancing pole.
Jeanette Yew's dramatic lighting — heavy reds and blues in some scenes, sepia tones in others — creates surreal landscapes onstage while McCormick's music selections hit nostalgic sweet spots and weave naturally into Alice's dreamlike journey. Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic classic "White Rabbit" makes a perfect prelude to "The Caterpillar" scene, in which two muscular men carry a figure tightly cocooned in a black gimp body sack. Sultry performer Lilin Lace, serving up Bettie Page realness, emerges seductively from her bondage to become a butterfly.
And that's just in the first act — there are three in this two-hour-40-minute theatrical feast. During the two entr'actes, performers sashay through the audience popping corks off champagne bottles and serving patrons mind-swirling libations (try the vodka-based, bergamot-flavored "We're All Mad Here," served in a teacup).
To reveal more would ruin the fun of discovering this Wonderland on your own. Two performers, however, deserve special mention. Marcy Richardson, with her operatic soprano, takes on the role of the Mad Hatter in the second act, delighting us with her French-language version of Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" and bringing us to tears with Michael Andrews's "Mad World" — the latter performed above the audience on a chandelier-like swing (she is an accomplished acrobat as well as a virtuosic vocalist, as are other members of the company). The show's pièce de résistance comes in the third act with the arrival of the Queen of Hearts, played by the divine Storm Marrero. Wearing an unforgettably regal costume designed by Pihlstrom, Storm captivates us with her soulful take on Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." Every bit a Queen, when she belts "Bow down, bitches" (from Beyoncé's "Flawless"), we feel obliged to obey.
Amid the euphoric atmosphere that McCormick and the company create, Queen of Hearts reminds us now and then of the political insanity in the world right now. One boisterous song, performed by Marcy, takes direct aim at our Mad Hatter in Chief. But for the most part, Queen of Hearts lets us trade the madness outside the theater for an intoxicating, exquisite madness within.