Review: BenDeLaCreme

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A little bit Lypsinka, a little bit Mummenchanz – certainly not what I expected when going to see a cabaret act from Drag Race alum BenDeLaCreme. Oh sure, there was plenty of other stuff in line with other drag cabarets I’ve seen: goofy song parodies, wisecracking comedy and so forth. But DeLa has something more sophisticated to offer, in a show with a seductive strangeness that creeps up on you.

The Lypsinka-y moment comes when DeLa – not known on Drag Race for her lip-synching talent – delivers a number that involves a skipping CD and warped speed changes. It’s incredibly complicated (and hilarious) and involves a level of synching technique close to the legendary Lyp.

The Mummenchanz-y stuff comes in the midst of a spectacular sequence that draws on performance art, modern dance, burlesque (where DeLa got her start) and all kinds of other art forms. Very exciting and very, very strange (in a good way). Burlesque also features in several sections of the show, including an ingenious display of twirling pasties on an assortment of fake boobs.

This act, titled Terminally Delightful, is every bit as carefully structured as Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales’s Vaudevillians, and in some ways just as ambitious. There is an autobiographical element to this show, but it’s cleverly refracted through diverse performance styles.

BenDeLaCreme is all about fantastic and ridiculous artifice, but also ultimately really about what that artifice can communicate and express about deeper things. She delivers a show that’s equal parts clubby fun and insightful art, no small feat. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Nellie McKay

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Nellie McKay is a highly individual talent, a supreme stylist, with wild, crazy creativity and substantial musical intelligence to match her razor-like interpretive ability. McKay has become something of a specialist in biographical cabarets – experimental performance art meets high society cabaret – and has put together another such special show about Billy Tipton, a jazz pianist who was discovered to have been a woman after his death.

The key word in that last sentence is “special” – A Girl Named Bill is cabaret as only Nellie McKay could do it. She does the entire act while literally playing the role of Tipton, right down to period-accurate costumes and props. And period-accurate music and speaking styles as well. A perfectionist sense of history on complete display.

Sometimes McKay’s complex acts can seem under-rehearsed. Not here. While she is certainly stretching the abilities of herself and her immensely talented band to their limits, these is a sense of ease. It’s swimmingly successful, no small achievement. McKay doesn’t narrate, so you might be well advised to look at the Wikipedia biography of Tipton before you see the show.

Instead, she presents us with loosely sketched vignettes of Tipton’s life, mostly letting the music do the story-telling. Tipton did impersonations in his shows, which gives McKay license to do songs by Jimmy Durante, Elvis Presley, Liberace and Bob Dylan.

The gender-bending element of the show gives McKay plenty of opportunities for humor, which she is all too willing to take. Most enjoyable of all is a running gag in which McKay’s hirsute band titter like schoolgirls, to which she scoffs, “Ladies, please!” But she also gets very serious about gender identity, especially in a hair-raising version of Jelly Roll Morton’s very sexually explicit “Whinin’ Boy Blues.”

McKay ties together all of the thematic and musical aspects of the show in a whimsically rousing rendition of “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?,” from My Fair Lady. McKay’s combination of irony and heart-on-sleeve sincerity is utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable. She’s a true original, and it’s an exceptional pleasure to see and hear her take such exciting risks in such an intimate setting.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Courtney Act

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I was Team Bianca before the season even started, but Miss Courtney Act was one of the more charming discoveries in the latest season of Drag Race. In her cabaret act Boys Like Me, Act reaffirms the perception that she is a real pro of a performer, a real pleasure to spend some time with, even if she’s not an innovator like Jinkx Monsoon, or a crazed genius like Bianca del Rio.

In Boys Like Me, Act sings songs and tells stories focusing on the sometimes provocative, sometimes absurd dirty laundry list that is his sex life. There’s that angry text from a straight boy’s girlfriend, the twins in Montreal, and the US Marine, and that’s just the beginning. The show is at its best in the spoken sections, as Courtney insightfully observes what happens when straddling the gender divide, when boys like “her.”

There’s no denying that Act is one of the most successfully “fishy” of drag queens – a cute boy to be sure, but truly gorgeous as a woman. That said, my personal taste in drag runs less to this kind of prettiness, and more to the fantastic and ridiculous. Thankfully, Act is more than a pretty face and nice bod: she has an appealing voice which she applies expressively to a wide variety of songs.

Most interestingly, she sings an ambitious version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. She sings the hell out of it, and acts it in such a way that it comments on her life story. Still, I felt like she was going for something in this song that she didn’t quite reach. She needs to work more on sitting calmly in the emotional center of a song, and rely less on her admittedly solid technical chops.

These are quibbles, however. Act definitely delivers a fun and smart cabaret show that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.