Published on April 24th, 2016 | by gareth0
RuPaul’s Drag Race Battle of the Seasons 2016
By Chris and Joseph Salonga
Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race lined up for hours, stretching down two city blocks from the entrance to the Showbox Sodo in Seattle, vying for the best standing-room only spot from which to see their favorite drag queens perform. But this production is more than just a live rehashing of the show (now in its eighth season, and currently casting for its ninth). The Extravaganza Tour is a testament to good writing and staging that plays to the strengths of its performers while offering something novel and refreshing to longtime viewers.
For the uninitiated, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality competition show airing on the Logo cable network which pits veteran and aspiring drag queens against each other in competitions designed to test their Creativity, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent. From fashion design and performance challenges to runway modeling and the dreaded Lip Sync for Your Life (a queen’s last chance to impress the judges and convince them they deserve to be saved from elimination), the competitors attempt to put their best high heel forward week after week, for the chance at cash, prizes, and the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar.
Battle of the Seasons is a bit of a misnomer: these ladies are genuinely good friends, and their camaraderie and synergy – both on stage and off – lift this production to heights not possible in the competitive arena that spawned it. At the pre-show Meet and Greet event (available to those who purchased the Superstar and Shantay You Stay VIP packages), the queens from the last four complete seasons of Drag Race were available for photo opportunities and casual conversation, exhibiting the true dichotomy of drag: a performance which is not a performance, but rather a reveal of their drag persona as a true self. Season 6 finalists Courtney Act and Adore Delano, hot off the heels of the tour’s European leg, traded barbs from across the room, raving about their experiences in Berlin as both performers and roommates. Season 7’s Miss Fame was in her element, filling the room with glamour and elegance, surrounded by adoring fans. Ginger Minj, a Season 7 finalist, drew laughs and giggles from titillated onlookers as a true comedy queen. Phi Phi O’Hara (Season 4) represented the old guard, with nary a sign of aging. Season 7 winner Violet Chachki, cinched and corseted to within an inch of her life, held court near the stage, where Pearl (another Season 7 competitor) manned the turntables, spinning the warmup tunes as only a New York DJ can. And standing statuesque in one corner was Season 5 finalist Alaska Thunderfuck, with nine-inch nails, nine-inch heels, and a come hither look that made the fans come hither.
Michelle Visage, perennial Drag Race judge and host for The Extravaganza Tour, was perhaps the biggest surprise. Fans of the show will recognize her as the most critical judge, always quick to point out a bad hemline, poor contouring makeup, and any green article of clothing. But on tour, she is approachable and kind-hearted, using her sharp tongue and wit to evoke laughter rather than enmity. And as host, she opened the night by first applauding the minors in attendance (the Seattle stop was an all-ages show), then applauding their parents, and finally warning them about the language that might be used during the show (followed by a string of expletives, “just to get it out of the way,” Visage said).
The group numbers – the opening parody of The Little Mermaid, and homage to the Rocky Horror Picture Show Medley – were played to perfection, featuring complicated blocking and choreography, as well as a mix of live singing and lip synching. The group also performed a mini Snatch Game (the show’s gender-bending twist on the classic Match Game), with each queen imitating a celebrity. Alaska’s Lady Bunny reprised her Season 5 performance with the same success she had on the show. Courtney’s generic North Carolinian Republican politician gave ample time for commentary on the controversial HB2 (and for the audience to show its disapproval of it). Phi Phi’s turn as Seattle’s own Robbie Turner was well played, but didn’t bring the laughs (probably because Robbie was recently eliminated from the current season of the show, and Seattleites are still reeling from the loss). Ginger Minj brought the house down with her over-the-top New Jersey stereotype of Michelle Visage. Yes, Michelle was hosting AND playing the Snatch Game and real Michelle couldn’t get enough.
Individual performances from the cast for the first half of the North America leg of The Extravaganza Tour features live singing from the expected performers (Adore Delano, a former American Idol contestant, and Courtney Act, a contestant on Australia’s version of same), but also from Michelle (who hasn’t lost a step vocally), Ginger (who never showcased that talent on the show), and Alaska (who has released a few videos on YouTube featuring her unique take on singing). Every performance was strong, and up close, it was evident that some of the singers weren’t using a backup track, despite having just performed exhausting dance numbers. They didn’t need one to wow the audience.
The non-singers excelled in their own right, displaying their own strengths. Phi Phi’s energetic dance number struck just the right note in energizing the crowd for the numbers that followed. Violet’s burlesque striptease showed off her superior costume design and … assets (marred only briefly by a tucking malfunction she quickly corrected). And Miss Fame literally drew on her artistic talents, sketching a gorgeous freehand caricature from scratch.
One interlude consisted of a runway show featuring each of the queens in one of their iconic outfits from their time on the show. Violet’s transforming black-to-plaid jumpsuit and Courtney’s Barbarella-inspired wings brought hoots and hollers from the every audience member (including this one!). Alaska’s live performance of her hit song, “Anus,” was also a hit. Though I never enjoyed the video, Alaska has so much presence, energy, and commitment that I ended the number wanting more Anus.
Seattle has a special place in its heart for Drag Race, having had three of its own compete on the show (including Seasons 5 winner Jinkx Monsoon). It was thus probably a bit disheartening to not see (the real) Robbie Turner or BenDelaCreme on the roster for this performance, but it made the surprise appearance of special guest Jinkx Monsoon all the more special, evidenced by the minutes-long ovation at her entrance. Jinkx and Michelle then jumped into witty repartee that blended seamlessly into a duet that brought a raucous crowd to silent awestruck wonder.
Several of the queens were glad to start the North American tour in Seattle. “Seattle has a great queer community and a great burlesque community, and I love it here,” Violet Chachki said. And while Miss Fame’s mother and niece made the six-hour trek from Spokane to see her in person, fans from a far as San Francisco and Salt Lake City were also drawn to Seattle. Even though the tour has stops in each of those cities, “We wanted to get away and do something subversive,” best friends Maureen Sweeney and Marc Ayala said. Although Seattle brought a freak springtime heatwave instead of its signature drizzle and gloom (at one point, Michelle made an impassioned plea for “some f$%#ing air conditioning”), the true heat came from the sizzling performances from the cast.
For tickets and locations for this must-see tour, visit rupaulbots.com.