New Burlesque Ferdinand Is Not Your Average Cock-and-Bull Story
Munro Leaf's storybook about a flower-loving bull gets a sexy makeover by Brooklyn-based Company XIV.
Austin McCormick, the founder of Brooklyn's Company XIV, delights in transforming childhood fables into adult fantasies. He and his troupe have achieved a unique place in New York's cabaret and burlesque scene with shows like Snow White, Cinderella, and their now regular holiday-season offering Nutcracker Rouge.
His latest adult excursion into the realm of fairy tale — the company's most polished show to date — is Ferdinand: Boylesque Bullfight, a sexy, decidedly homoerotic take on Munro Leaf's popular 1936 book The Story of Ferdinand. The source material may be familiar to children, but it bears repeating that this steamy production is not for kids. Near the venue's entrance, the scantily clad bartenders, pouring drinks under red lighting in frankincense-heavy air, set the indisputably grown-up tone for the evening.
McCormick has taken some liberties with the story, but his company's aesthetic remains the same. A muscular, all-male ensemble clad in glittering thongs, sturdy high heels, and leather chest harnesses enter to perform a dance overture accompanied by a selection from Bizet's Carmen. Ryan Redmond, wearing a creative headpiece made from a pair of golden stilettos (inventive costumes by Zane Philstrom), takes the stage as Ferdinand, a tenderhearted bull who, unlike his rough-playing companions, just wants to lie in the fields and smell the flowers.
Redmond and the ensemble show us Ferdinand being taunted by the others with a comical dance number set to Bill Hayes's rendition of the Disney song "Ferdinand the Bull." He then performs a lonely solo before the ensemble swirls onstage in tutus to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee." Ferdinand and a black-and-gold-clad bee (Làszlò Major) dance a memorable pas de deux to Shirley Bassey's "Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me" while backlit by a single spotlight (lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk) that casts haunting shadows across the theater.
But when the bee stings him and the innocent Ferdinand gets upset, his aggressive behavior makes everyone think he ought to be entered in a bullfight. Ferdinand meets the Matador, played by the captivating soprano Marcy Richardson, in the bullring, yet despite engaging in a contest with the Matador, Ferdinand finds he's not really a fighter. Luckily, his gentle nature leads him back to his beloved fields, where he can spend the rest of his life smelling the flowers.
The ensemble's often balletic, sometimes wild dance numbers, choreographed by director McCormick, are the spicy meat of the show. But Richardson, the only vocalist in Ferdinand, deserves special mention for bringing the house down in the second act with her rendition of Enrique Iglesias's "Bailamos," which she sings while performing on an aerial hoop. Major, as the bumblebee, also executes jaw-dropping feats, in his case on a dance pole that seems to allow him to defy gravity. Such impressive athleticism is on display throughout the production.
Those eye-popping routines, plus the show's combination of dance, burlesque, eclectic music, and humor, make for a highly entertaining hour and 45 minutes. For its provocative performances and sensuous atmosphere that temporarily transports you to another world, Company XIV's Ferdinand makes for one of the best, most adventurous date nights in the city right now.