It's Monsoon season in New York City if the lengthy line to get into the storm shelter-like Laurie Beechman Theatre is any indication. The Vaudevillians, a new, high-concept cabaret act starring Major Scales (aka Richard Andriessen) and Jinkx Monsoon (aka Jerick Hoffer) has come to town. While I doubt the crowds would be quite so big if Monsoon were not the winner of season five of RuPaul's Drag Race, I am happy to report that The Vaudevillians stands on its own as an intelligent and entertaining evening of song, dance, and comedy.
Scales and Monsoon play husband-and-wife vaudeville act Dr. Dan Von Dandy and Kitty Witless. They were frozen in ice in the 1920s during a tour of Antarctica, but thanks to the magic of global warming, they're back and ready to perform some of their biggest hit songs. With Dr. Von Dandy seated behind a grand piano and Witless very often on top of it, they offer jazz-age versions of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" and Soft Cell's "Tainted Love." Who knew that Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" was actually a Charleston?
The cocaine-addled Ms. Witless informs the audience, "Unfortunately, that song was ripped off by another famous drug addict." Since Dr. Von Dandy didn't think to file copyright on any of his songs, they all were! With straight faces they explain how Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" was actually written as a showstopper for Nora in their musical A Doll's House 2: Electric Boogaloo.
With her bravura performance as Little Edie Bouvier Beale on the "Snatch Game" episode of Drag Race, Monsoon set herself apart as the most culturally literate queen in a season that was sorely lacking. Yes, Monsoon is a man in a dress, but that doesn't mean her act has to be completely stupid. True to form, The Vaudevillians is a heady mix of the sacred and profane. "Read a book," she barks, responding to the blank stares in the audience as she elaborates on the couple's polyamorous relationship with Kurt Weill. A jazzy rendition of Britney Spears' "Toxic" is dedicated to Marie Curie, a dear friend with a "glowing personality." Simultaneously sophomoric and highbrow, this is seriously smart cabaret that won't put you to sleep, no matter how much gin you imbibe.
Like her predecessor Sharon Needles, Monsoon tapped into a constituency of gay men and their allies who felt unrepresented by the Glamazon pageant queens who had hitherto dominated RuPaul's Drag Race. Her fellow contestants often ridiculed her for being "too theatrical," only solidifying her popularity among those yearning for a theater queen to rule them all. Goth girls and alternaqueers were out in force at the performance I attended. A pretty-eyed black-clad gentleman wearing a t-shirt that said "I ♥ Shoes, Booze, and Boys with Tattoos" seemed to represent the collective sentiments of the audience when he was invited onstage.
Scales has the most difficult job, playing opposite someone with such a built-in fan base. None of these people bought a ticket to see him. Yet he holds his own as an equal part of the show. With an unwavering Upstate New York accent and an elastic face, Scales plays the closet homosexual Von Dandy to the hilt. His crisp delivery of DJ Kool's "Let Me Clear My Throat" (with slightly altered lyrics) proves the importance of precise elocution in hip-hop.
Monsoon is as zany live as her television fans have come to expect. Perfect comic timing directs a high-flying falsetto that will lead you to forget that the sequined chanteuse before you is actually a man. Girlfriend has pipes of steel.
The cabaret drag act is not a new invention. Yet, when done well, as is seen here, it is a winning formula for an unforgettable evening of entertainment. Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales are the millennial Kiki and Herb. I hope this is the first of many visits to New York for this Seattle-based cabaret treasure.