By MARK BLANKENSHIP
If RuPaul's Drag Race made you a fan of Jinkx Monsoon, the drag queen who won the most recent season, then you might be pleasantly startled by The Vaudevillians, the cabaret-musical-comedy show she's performing with her collaborator Major Scales. For all the pizzazz she showed on Drag Race, Monsoon never got to highlight her flair for torch singing, her years of acting training, or her knack for dramatic structure. She never got to prove that she's a theatre queen as well as a drag queen.
All those talents are on fully display in The Vaudevillians, now at the Laurie Beechman. The show follows Kitty Witless (Monsoon) and Dr. Dan Von Dandy (Scales), a vaudeville duo from the 1920s who were accidentally frozen during their Antarctic tour. Now that they're unfrozen, they've discovered the songs they wrote have become today's biggest hits. When they perform Britney Spears' "Toxic" as a torch ballad or add some dancehall bounce to Madonna's "Music," they're merely performing them as they were meant to be heard.
That droll conceit is funny enough on its own, but for those who want to dig deeper, Monsoon and Scales, who started developing this material four years ago when they were college theatre majors in Seattle, have layered the show with subtle details.
They've been careful, for instance, about which songs they re-arrange to sound like Jazz Age classics. "It's a thin line between what works for a piano bar and what works for our show," says Scales, whose real name is Richard Andriessen. Some hits might seem like a natural fit because they already have a retro flavor, but that actually makes them inappropriate for this show. "We aren't going to do 'Love Shack' [by the B-52s], because 'Love Shack' already sounds kind of antiquated," says Monsoon, whose real name is Jerick Hoffer. "To just take that and make it sound only slightly more antiquated isn't enough of a shift."
The point is to keep us guessing. "You want to delay the audience's recognition," says Scales, who arranges all the songs. "'I Will Survive' is taken apart, and I don't even use the original music for 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' because we wanted a very different feel."
Some numbers also deepen our understanding of who these characters are. In one scene, Kitty remembers her old friend Marie Curie, points out she could be a "real bitch," then eulogizes her death-by-radiation with that torchy version of "Toxic." It's a funny joke, but it also tells us what kind of person Kitty is. The same goes for her lengthy monologue about Ibsen, Dr. Dandy's increasingly tense asides about sex, and a climactic fight about who matters most to the show.
Plus, the characters keep evolving. Between improv exercises and ideas they get on stage, Monsoon and Scales are always finding new material. Asked what they've learned about their characters recently, Monsoon says, "Through this process we've realized that they don't really care about who's getting laid or who's laying who, even though they're married. What they really care about is putting on a show, and that's why their relationship exists."
Scales adds that they've sorted out why the couple is so comfortable with modern attitudes about sex and politics. "In our minds, we're pretty sure they were frozen before the stock market crash, so we can keep this idea of eternal optimism," he explains.
Of course, a casual observer might wonder what happened to Jinkx Monsoon. Is she just another character, forever trapped on Drag Race, or is she part of The Vaudevillians as well? "Jerick plays Jinkx, and then Jinkx plays Kitty," says Monsoon. "I have to get into Jinkx first to get into another drag character, because Jinkx is the base of everything I do."
Monsoon continues, "We both studied clown in college, so we both have these base characters, and all of our other characters are extensions of those base characters. Even if they have different notes and different accents, all of my characters are coming from Jinkx."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Wilson Models