ICONIC – A Brief History of Drag @ De Parel Spiegeltent, the Pleasure Garden (for Fringe)
Sunday, February 18, 2018
Anyone who watches Mama Ru and all her children on Drag Race knows that every drag queen has a backstory. All of their stories contain common threads: defiance, perseverance, triumph. Some of those backstories can be quite heartbreaking, with artists having pulled themselves out of some truly harrowing circumstances, while other queens are born out of a kind of cosmic serendipity, where life and art intersect in happy ways.
This seems to be the way that Velma Celli, the drag persona of musical theatre artist Ian Stroughair, came into being. One night after performing in Chicago he went out in drag with his fellow cast members to meet up with the cast of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, and then ended up singing his heart out at a karaoke night where he was immediately booked to be a regular drag performer. He didn’t even have a drag name at that stage, so later that night over a late night bowl of noodles with his fellow queens, he came up with the name Velma (from Chicago) Celli (vermicelli noodles). Clever, no?
Now that I’ve given away some of the show’s content (nothing that hasn’t been retold in interviews before, to be sure), I am happy to say ICONIC – A Brief History of Drag is a fantastic show that ticks all the boxes. Ms Celli is a gifted chanteuse, with superb range and vocal control, wicked humour that’s never mean-spirited; she loves her audience and the feeling is mutual. From my view, everyone in the first couple of rows were lapping up what she was serving, with beaming smiles and dancing in their seats.
The show leans into a few torch songs, sometimes back-to-back; this is a risky programming move, but one which pays off for Ms Celli, perched on her bar stool, bathed in the spotlight, sparkling like a black diamond. She sings her heart out, and her renditions of well-known tunes breathe new life into them.
An audience favourite was her cover of David Bowie/Freddie Mercury’s Under Pressure, which is quite a difficult tune to pull off – it requires careful timing, and a lot of muscular singing, and I have to say that the whole band (which included keyboard, drums, guitar and two back-up singers) didn’t miss a beat. The crowd also loved the encore, a Priscilla medley, which had us all singing, clapping and dancing along, wishing Velma could stick around for just a few more tunes.
My personal favourite moment was when she unleashed a series of singing impressions for us – Britney Spears, Shakira and Cher, to name three – they were spot on, even if her vocal range is somewhat lower than the women she was parodying. It takes a keen ear and a lot of vocal skill to nail those iconic voices, and nail them she did.
ICONIC could be considered a rather stripped-down show, showcasing vocal and musical skill and storytelling rather than the illusion of drag – there are no flashy costume changes (well, there is a ceremonious change in footwear), no big wigs, props or outrageous antics – nothing that would get in the way of us getting to know Velma Celli. She does briefly give us some historical anecdotes, but this isn’t a lesson in the art of drag; it’s more a glimpse into the events and culture that have shaped her career and led her into the world of drag.
As Fringe shows go, this is a sure bet – ICONIC has class, sass, great music, and a charismatic star in Velma Celli.
ICONIC – A Brief History of Drag runs until February 25 at De Parel Spiegeltent in the Pleasure Garden. For tickets and more information, visit the event page here.