Review: Raja

This queen repeats herself sometimes. You know what, though, Raja looked into the cause of this issue, and found the theme of her new show “Lush Life,” which is all about the weed and wine she cheerfully admits to consuming before during and after the show. She explains that lush means luscious, extra and (in her words) a “moderate alcoholic” – all qualities she proudly owns, and uses to entertain her adoring audience.

It doesn’t hurt that with a little wine in her, Raja instinctively swirls, twirls and dips with aplomb whenever there’s music. That makes me wish the ratio of talk to music favored music more, even though her monologues are spiritually and politically deft and intelligent.

She’s one of the most effortlessly stylish queens ever to appear on Drag Race, and she features a little bit of everything in this show: some singing, some monologuing about contemporary issues, and a whole lot of fashion fierceness (three fabulous glimmering monochrome outfits). As a matter of fact, she opens the show singing – not lipsynching – Madonna’s “Vogue,” giving you fantastic body and face. There’s your admission fee covered right there. Raja has a warm charismatic presence, which makes you think she’d be able to put over just about anything she wanted. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Simsinz

This is absolutely insane! And I definitely mean that as a complement! This unauthorized drag parody lipsynch tribute to The Simpsons comes from the inventive mind of up and coming drag star Cissy Walken. In The Simsinz, Marge huffs ammonia and has hallucinations, while the rest of the family turns queer. A large portion of the lipsynch material comes from episodes that deal with gay themes. Even more, however, comes from pop songs and showtunes, and even some original material in which Walken sings in a perfect Marge Simpson voice (Walken has a reputation as a talented mimic, particularly for her Amy Winehouse).

In The Simsinz, drag culture collides head-on with The Simpsons – even the male characters have exaggerated eyelashes and high heels. It’s shocking at first, but it is impossible to resist the charm of this loving tribute, especially from such a skilled company of lipsynchers. To say nothing of its sheer giddy comic loopiness – I mean the 11 O’Clock number goes to Ralph Wiggums for goodness sake!

In addition to Walken, Coco Taylor (host of Members Only Boylesque), Aria Derci, Pussy Willow and Andy Starling play a bevy of characters. I really couldn’t tell you who played what because the costume changes are truly dizzying, and the staging sophisticated and energetic. While the sound editing is impressive on a Lypsinka level, there are still kinks to be worked out – Maggie’s pacifier was truly deafening. Even with such hiccups, though, this joyous romp left me with a lasting grin on my face. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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.

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.