Review: Shuga Cain

Who knew that Drag Race alum Shuga Cain named herself after Shug Avery, the juke joint singer from The Color Purple! Just to make the point crystal clear, in her cabaret act Sweet Dreams Shuga does numbers from not one but two different versions of The Color Purple.

From the movie – which she identifies as the film that most inpired her personally and artistically – she does Shug’s love song to Miss Celie “Sister.” It’s the only song Cain sings live (all the others are lip synchs), and she’s very self-depricating about the quality of her singing. She doesn’t have to be: she’s better than a lot of ladymen from the show, and could definitely do more of it in her act. The other Color Purple song she does is a lip synch of “I’m Here” as sung by Cynthia Erivo in the stage musical. She nails this one to the ceiling, making it a fitting climax to her act.

Her show, called Sweet Dreams, is very much in the autobiographical mode of many solo drag shows. What sets Shuga apart though, is the chatty just-between-us-gurls tone that makes you feel that she’s talking to just you. It’s clear that she primarily considers herself a comedy queen – she attributes her allegedly sub-par singing to “too much tequila and dick” – and she is indeed a laugh and a half. Cain also happily identifies herself as an “80s baby” and does a megamix by divas such as Janet, Whitney, Mariah and the like, which she delivers with high-energy bounce. The whole evening is boisterous fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Unitard

Hard-hitting, R-rated, queer as fuck sketch comedy is what this trio does. I mean their new show is called Badassy which kind of tells you what you need to know. They all have other careers, Mike Albo as a writer, Nora Burns and David Ilku as actors, but there’s a special, danagerous alchemy that happens when they come together as Unitard.

The opening salvos in Badassy are a “hanky code” parody whose targets range far and wide, followed by a sketch about a pair of New Yorkers (Burns and Albo) complaining about the Donald’s vile capers, while their waiter (Ilku) is playing a darker game only revealed at the end. Later in the show, all three participate in a “name that school shooting” sketch that breaks down in a very meta way, as the trio speaks in their voices about the limits of comedy.

While group sketches make up most of the show, some of the best moments are solo moments. Burns is hilarious as a particularly preening version of Ann Coulter. When Albo faces some credit card problems, he is subjected to an increasingly embarrasing accounting of his spending (in a voice-over by Ilku) in which the card company rep has insight into his most mortifying motives.

I think my favorite though is when Ilku, as an older but still hopping club kid, let’s you know in ballroom lingo all the things he hates and loves. He hates being co-opted by Pose, for one. But then, in the bit’s climax, he joyously namechecks all the greats of New York drag, performance art and music who are still at it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Miz Cracker

Drag as a feminist act – that’s what Drag Race alum Miz Cracker is aiming at in her new cabaret show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, “American Woman.” After appearing on the aforementioned reality show, Cracker noticed that her audience had shifted from mostly gay men to mostly women. This gave “her” pause – it makes sense to make jokes about gay sex if you’re speaking to gay men, but should you still be doing the same kind of act if your audience is women by more than half?

Cracker is “sorry / not sorry” for giving you a feminist TED talk with jokes, pop songs and choreography. Oh, and while we are on the subject, Le Miz gives you all of those New York drag traditions we love – Lypsinka-inspired lip-synch collage, cartwheels worthy of Candis Cayne (who was just at the Beechman last week), and even House of Ninja vogue moves – in ample supply. The “not sorry” comes with thought that “wouldn’t you have enjoyed algebra more if ‘teach’ threw in some costume changes?”

It’s not that drag queens can no longer do “funny pussy songs,” Cracker suggests, but they should maybe think a second about what it means to a woman to celebrate her pussy – and then does just such a number to illustrate what she has in mind. And so on through more and more serious feminist themes.

I saw her first performance of this show ever, and it still had some wrinkles. There’s an opening collage of beautiful powerful women of all types (wittily set to Smetana’s “My Fatherland”), but it’s overlong and doesn’t quite make sense, due to the fact we haven’t been clued into the feminist bent of the show yet. It would be more moving post-show, where it would make an effective crossover while Cracker changes outfits for the meet and greet. Plus, there are many repetitions that could easily be trimmed.

All in all, though, a remarkably intelligent and entertaining evening of drag. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tovah Feldshuh

A cabaret show performed in the cellar of Studio 54 about Manhattan real estate legend Leona Helmsley, as played by Tovah Feldshuh…it doesn’t get more NEW YORK than this! All this with a voice over introduction by New York Post columnist Cindy Adams…well, as Adams ends every column “Only in New York, kids!”

Feldshuh has put together a mad, fabulous cabaret act featuring highlights from the new “Broadway-bound” musical Queen of Mean, based on the New York Times best-selling biography by Piers Ransdell. It’s all very meta, with Tovah as Leona forcefully advising the show’s composers (Ron Passaro, music; David Lee, lyrics) about what should and should not be included in the musical. Basically, Leona’s retrying her various legal cases in the court of cabaret.

The spine of the act is songs from the musical, but Tovah throws in random verses and choruses from showtunes and pop songs to help tell the story in a more compact form. Helmsley comments on all that befell her, including some profoundly hypocritical shade from her real estate rival Donald Trump.

Feldshuh is as smart, skillful and sharp as always. This act features precious little shtick, but possesses lots of the heartfelt quality Tovah brings to everything she does, allowing us to see Helmsley in quite a different light. Passaro and Lee’s songs hold up well with the standards and hits Feldshuh mixes in, which is a very good sign.

Director Jeff Harnar has helped Tovah construct a very well-oiled machine, truly sophisticated in the way it attacks its subject matter. Almost without fail, the comedy is bitingly joyous and the moments of sentiment genuine and surprisingly touching. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

Review: Charles Busch

Legendary playwright and actor Charles Busch’s current cabaret act – titled “Native New Yorker” – is in some ways a sequel to his previous autobiographical club act “My Kinda ’60s.” As with that act, we again find Charles in boy drag – albeit with a subtle dash of rouge, wearing a patterned iridescent suit of crimson and purple. Here, again, the lack of wigs and dresses also signifies that Charles is expressing something more personal and vulnerable.

That’s because this act is about Busch’s journey to being the camp drag star we know today. Busch is very precise about his pop culture references. He successfully catches the feeling of coming of age (as an artist) at a time when life felt like a non-stop party. As a matter of fact one of the definite high points of the show is a touching rendition of the titular disco song as an late night / early morning ballad.

The act isn’t all earnest sincerity, though there’s more of that than usual. There are still plenty of quoted classic movie star mannerisms. As always, he moves from one glittering camp archetype to another with effortless ease. It’s just the tone that has shifted. It’s fun, but the theme of seriously searching for your very own queer identity – which runs through all of his work – is much more explicit.

He has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. Busch has a pleasantly throaty high tenor voice. As with the greatest cabaret singers, it’s all about how Busch acts the story and emotion of a song: He finds corners I didn’t know existed in Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning,” reinterpreting it as an older man letting go of a a younger lover.

Busch sincerely loves artifice, and he invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ginger Minj

When Alyssa Edwards bragged to Ginger Minj about her Netflix show, Ginger replied “That’s wonderful! I have two!!”She has a lead in the cartoon Super Drags, and a supporting role in the film Dumplin’ which also sports a soundtrack by Dolly Parton. Her latest act Happy New Queer, opens with trailers for those two shows, as well as a new music video for Parton’s “Jolene” starring her and several other Drag Race favorites.

On the cabaret side of the Minj’s ascending career, this new act is possibly her tightest yet, and certainly her most entertaining. Ginger has genuine article musical theatre training and chops, and for this act she combines showtunes with pop tunes, climaxing in a emotional, full-throated rendition of “I Am What I Am.” She’s also very funny of course, combining comic stories from her own life with quick-witted audience interaction, and even more structured audience participation in a “Big Gay Dance-Off” that runs throughout the show.

Ginger’s got her cabaret chops polished to a high sheen. And I can’t go without giving praise to her glory of a wig, big and bright ginger and coiffed to within an inch of its life! Ginger is a real show biz pro going from strength to strength, and had the audience in the palm of her hand all evening long. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Alaska

This is light-years better than RuPaul’s holiday special. Not that that’s a very high bar, since RuPaul’s show was basically an update of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special – only in this one Grandpa Wookie had an album to sell. Seriously, though, Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 from the Planet Glamtron has really been growing as vocal performer. Her greatest gift remains a knack for imaginative exaggeration, but behind all the odd vocal effects and comic lip movements, her actual singing voice is getting stronger and more assured.

This show is called “Christmas in Space,” and is a Star Trek-based holiday-themed evening. The holiday theme is very loose indeed, as Alaska mostly applies her unique vocalisms to songs by the likes of Melissa Etheridge and Heart. The show leans harder toward the “in space” part of the title, with references to the Jasmine Masters Nebula, and the mythical Robbie Turner Asteroid Belt. It isn’t her funniest show to date (that would be her Golden Girls tribute), but it is equal parts clever and haunting. Precision, wit, intelligence and creativity have been Alaska’s hallmarks for a while, and all of those are on clear display here.

Plus, the show was snappy and short (another Alaska hallmark)! That never happens in drag cabaret! I’m almost tempted to say she should flesh it out a bit and make it longer, but the Star Trek jokes were already beginning to wear a bit thin, so it is probably exactly as long as it need to be. Very gay, a lot of fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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