Cleopatra's Comin' Atcha in This Immersive Musical About the Egyptian Queen
Dusty Ray Bottoms stars in this glammed-out take on ancient herstory.
Rome tolerates only one Caesar, but does Egypt have room enough for two queens? That question is put to the test in Jeff Daye and Laura Kleinbaum's Cleopatra, now playing at Chelsea Music Hall. It stars the one-named Nya as the queen of the Nile, but it also features RuPaul's Drag Race contestant Dusty Ray Bottoms as the Mistress of Ceremonies. Only one queen survives to the end, and it doesn't take a PhD in ancient history to guess which one.
Daye and Kleinbaum set their story (additional material by Drew Fornarola) in the twilight of the Ptolemaic court of Alexandria. Cleopatra reigns supreme over nightly decadence, but Marc Antony (the suitably virile Christian Brailsford) has just returned from Actium with some bad news: The ruthless Roman opportunist Octavian (Corbin Payne as a freshman Republican) is victorious and is on his way. Should Cleopatra bend the knee, or stay and fight? If she chooses the latter, does she need a man like Antony to win her battles for her? (Hell to the no! *snap*)
Predictably, Cleopatra bears the ubiquitous patina of 21st-century girl power, so often applied to antique figures unsuited for such high gloss. It works a bit better here since the original dance pop anthems and hip-hop recitative of the score make it clear that (much like in Shakespeare) historical accuracy is a low priority.
Director J.T. Horenstein's flashy staging on Christopher Bowser's runway set places Cleopatra firmly in the world of New York City nightlife, making us the club kids. A cast of attractive Alexandrians performs Horenstein's frantic hieroglyph-inspired choreography while wearing outfits that mix gold lamé dancewear with fetish gear (inventive costumes by Nicolas Putvinsky). Joe Cantalupo's clubby LED lighting nicely accentuates the dances, while Drew Levy's well-balanced sound design keeps the vocals clear over the canned accompaniment. It's an impressive feat in a space that is essentially a bar.
Beyoncé would be the ideal queen to reign over this kingdom, and Nya certainly conjures her with her tight dance moves and gold-on-black bodysuit. Also like Queen Bey, Nya marries killer vocals with a somewhat inaccessible blankness. No matter if she's partying with her court, seducing Antony, or preparing for death, she maintains a chilly air of royal indifference. It's not so much unflappable as it is uninterested: When other characters are performing, she seems to stare off into the distance, waiting for her next cue.
That's in stark contrast with Bottoms, whose reactions to the onstage action are visible even when she's lurking in the dark over by the bar. For a show with as many reversible sequins as this one has, Cleopatra takes itself awfully seriously, so it's a relief when Bottoms stomps onstage to throw shade at the audience. An impromptu runway walk contest among three audience members is a high point, conveying the uninhibited joy that we're told is the hallmark of Cleo's realm, but that we so rarely feel.
Cleopatra might be one of those shows for which the fun needs a little extra help. Luckily, there's a bar that remains open throughout the performance, and the production encourages you to get up and pay it a visit — especially if you don't yet feel the urge to get up and dance.