“Vaude D’Gras” brings the Big Top to Bywater (review)

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(UPDATE: This post now includes an expanded look at the show, which concludes its run Monday (Feb. 8) night. For show details, click here.)

LadyBEAST’s revamping of the Mardi Gras-timed circus show, “Vaude D’Gras,” took over the old Bywater Happyland Theater house on Sunday (Feb. 7) with a rousing ensemble performance that included acts by burlesque performer GoGo McGregor, opera-singing clown Guglielmo, knife-thrower Madame Daggers, whip-cracking/gun-slinging Clay Mazing, aerialist Sarah Stardust, and LadyBEAST herself.

They all performed to the music of the Vaude D’Gras Band, including Sarah Jacques.

Building on the strength of their previous two “Cirque du Gras” shows, also timed for Carnival, this troupe has an easy chemistry that’s only buttressed by the addition of popular New Orleans burlesque and sideshow performer GoGo McGregor. (She also works with LadyBEAST and Liza Rose on what will be a quarterly Cirque Copine show at One Eyed Jacks, which debuted in January.)

While last year’s theme had a kind of post-apocalyptic vibe, this year’s show was sort of pre-apocalyptic — the notion being that vaudeville was being threatened by increasingly modern forms of entertainment (movies, TV, the Internet), and it’s up to the troupe to up its game to keep the customers coming on in. On this chilly Sunday night, the disheveled Happyland Theater, once a home for vaudeville and then movies in Bywater, seemed an apt setting. Almost the entire interior was a study in patchwork coverage, from the flooring to the side walls to the shutters that lined the back wall of the unused balcony. Artisans pushed trinkets, including vintage hats, and most of the modest-size audience showed up in period attire. With no heat available, it indeed felt like the lights were about to go out on vaudeville, but for the efforts of this rag-tag troupe. (If only the one woman sitting near me, with her vintage coat and floral headdress, could have gotten more into the spirit of the proceedings and not texted on her phone half the time.)

Guglielmo, as he’s done in the past, proves a genial emcee, growling and barking his lines. He and Clay Mazing make for a fun comedic duo, especially in the introduction, with Clay Mazing constantly winking at the audience using period references (“Can I bum a fag”?) to underscore how times, and language, have changed.

They’re in constant survival mode with the “show,” especially troubled by the diva/star GoGoMcGregor, who is restless with vaudeville and wants to gain her fame on the silver screen. She spends much of the show serving as the cynical counterpoint to LadyBEAST, who as aerialist and escape artist seeks to preserve all that’s good about vaudeville.

Much as it was with Cirque Copine’s “In Wonderland” at One Eyed Jacks, it’s when LadyBEAST and Sarah Stardust take flight that “Vaude D’Gras” does the same; their aerial performances, together and separately, turn the shabby Happyland into a little palace of magic. While it’s perhaps best to leave the details vague, LadyBEAST’s escape trick at the show’s end is also a moment to behold, if for no other reason the degree of difficulty.

Similarly, the troupe’s greatest strength is when everyone’s onstage creating mayhem; while some individual performances are good but not often great, their collective energy, spirt and humor thrives in ensemble delivery. GoGo McGregor especially excels in these moments; though she’s one of the city’s most popular burlesque performers, and delivered a solid fan dance here, she’s an even better comic talent and wise-cracker, getting her bitch on with every single member of the cast. (Watching them break character with her one-liners is a particular thrill.)

Guglielmo is similarly versatile, whether he’s emceeing or singing arias or performing familiar sideshow stunts such as getting a tattoo on his ass and then a nipple pierced. This was a highlight of last year’s show. (Afterward, he combined the two by performing the Neopolitan classic “O sole mio” before morphing into Elvis and transitioning it seamlessly into “It’s Now or Never.”) The capper was a double busting of a cinder block on his stomach along with GoGo McGregor (with LadyBEAST and Clay Mazing doing the honors.)

Clay Mazing possesses a similar charm, even when not every one of his whip-cracking tricks hits the mark. My only real wish was to have seen a little more of the knife-throwing antics of Madame Daggers, who spent most of her time playing violin with the excellent Vaude D’Gras Band (led by Sarah Jacques, who also performs in the Cirque Copine band.)

“Vaude D’Gras” could use a little tightening of the performances, but it remains a glorious celebration of both the circus-arts talent in the city and the chemistry and spirit of an ensemble that plays well together and off one another. Monday night is the last chance to see them before, like Carnival itself, it vanishes for another year.

For show details, click here. For more on New Orleans’ circus-arts scene, click here.

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Lana O’Day’s top 5 drag inspirations, heading into Friday’s “Little Miss Sunshine of the Bywater”

12207618_514992518665418_1697913512_nLittle Miss Sunshine of the Bywater operates on the principle that, well, Bywater’s got talent. This we already know thanks to the Marigny/Bywater scene that plays hosts to drag, burlesque, comedy and music shows from Elysian Fields to Poland and St. Claude avenues.

It’s with that belief that I signed on as a judge for Friday’s (Nov. 6) drag-themed talent contest being held at Bar Redux, which I helped tout as one of New Orleans’ five best new bars for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune:

You can’t walk inside Bar Redux and not fall in love with co-owners Janya and Russ Mercado and son Damian (at the bar), rock ‘n’ rollers from New York who work feverishly to bring a slide of the Lower East Side to the back of Bywater. On any given night of the month you can check rockabilly, goth and burlesque theme nights, with Russ working out of the kitchen to produce pub grub and his own ‘Yankee gumbo.’

It’s also with this belief that I asked co-host Lana O’Day, a talented drag queen whom I interviewed for a story about the sale of the French Quarter gay nightclub Oz, to serve up her five favorite drag inspirations. (For more on the show, which starts at 8 p.m. and is $10 at the door, visit the Facebook page. Sponsored by Research Association for Missing People, it’s all part of the Faux/Real Festival running through Nov. 22. Learn more here. If you’d like to participate in the contest, contact Lana at Lanaoday@gmail.com.

Given some of the answers, Lana turned out to be a great pick; her alter-ego pens the very cool Blame Mame: A Classic Film Blog. Here’s what Lana had to say:

“Some Like It Hot” —  “If you haven’t seen this film, you need to have your head checked! You’ve got Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon cross dressing in an all girls band to hide out from the mob and you’ve got Marilyn Monroe! What else could you want or need?! The scene that has always stuck out in my head is the train scene where we are first introduced to Daphne and Josephine (Tony and Jack). They are trying to walk in heels and look feminine, but they just can’t get it. And than it cuts to the voluptuous blonde bombshells herself … Marilyn Monroe, who struts passed the fellas and shows them how it’s done. Daphne’s quote puts it all into perspective: ‘Will you look at that! Look how she moves! It’s like Jell-O on springs. Must have some sort of built-in motor or something. I tell you, it’s a whole different sex!’ How’s that sound? Now this is what I’m talkin’ bout. It sounds perfect.”

“To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” — “This one is pretty obvious. A film about drag queens in the 1990s was taboo. Throw in top film stars Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes and you’ve got a recipe for fun. The opening scene to this film is one of my favorites of all the films I’ve ever seen. It starts with Salt-N-Peppa asking, ‘Where is the body?’ Than the beats drops and It cuts to Vita and Noxema getting ready for a night on the town. There’s eyelashes, huge powder puffs, girdles, stockings, wigs, gowns … oh my! I was hooked from the first time I saw this … in elementary school! And of course Noxema schooled us on what exactly a drag queen is: ‘When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body and has a little operation he is a transsexual. When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender, he is a drag queen. And when a tired little Latin boy puts on a dress, he is simply a boy in a dress!”

The Little Mermaid” — Yes, even Disney has its fair share of connections with the cross dressing community. After all, the best villain and my favorite sea witch Ursula was modeled after the one and only Divine! From her high, arched eyebrows to her large red lips, Ursula just screams QUEEN! She is vicious and knows what she wants! She will step on anyone who gets in the way … even the skinny pretty girl. Sounds like a queen to me! ‘And don’t forget the importance of body language!’”

“Victor/Victoria” —  Words can not express how much I love this film! You’ve Mary Poppins … yes, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) playing a woman who can’t get a job as an entertainer dressing as a man who entertains as a cross dresser. Mind blown, right? It’s like cross-dressing inception! The story line deals with men questioning their sexuality, equal rights for women, and a whole lot of amazing music numbers. Everyone has seen the ‘Le Jazz Hot’ scene right? No? Than why are you reading this? It’s so good even ‘Glee’ had to remake it … that means you’ve made it!”

Jayne Mansfield — Ok, so technically, Jayne Mansfield isn’t a movie, but she is the definition of camp, glamor and drag. To put it simply, Jayne Mansfield was Vera Jayne Palmer’s drag persona. Jayne learned early on what she needed to do to be successful and get attention. Jayne Mansfield was over the top, gaudy, and a caricature of a glamorous woman. She wore revealing gown, big hair, big lashes, and even had a pink house. Like the entire house was pink and furry. If that isn’t a drag queen’s doing I don’t know what is. Jayne talents shine best in her two most popular films: ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ and ‘Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?’ Many stars in Old Hollywood created personas that they would play on screen and in public. Jayne Mansfield’s persona just happened to be that of a drag queen.