BWW Review: Raja Returns to Work the Runway in Her One-Woman Debut GAWDESS at the Laurie Beechman
Raja's debut one-woman show, RAJA: GAWDESS, was an exercise in charisma, in the best possible sense of the phrase.
Truly, at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on August 25, the RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE winner herself joked that the show had no express purpose. But on the whole, that hardly mattered. For someone who supposedly doesn't do anything but "drink boxed wine and smoke weed," Raja infused so much life into this little show.
At the top, a video message played, featuring stars of both the drag and fashion worlds wishing her well, including AMERICA'S NEXT TOP MODEL's Miss J, Paulina Porizkova, Alaska, and Michelle Visage.
What was refreshing, though, is that the queen chose not to reference the reality show at all, past or present, aside from playing those video shoutouts and later name-checking RuPaul as a childhood hero.
Sporting a gold jumpsuit with an endlessly flowing gold lamé cape to match, she bumped her head as she took the stage, joking, "I'm too fucking tall for this place." Near-beheading aside, the show's staging was stellar. Somehow, simple paneling on either side of the stage managed to heighten the drama of the performance, framing the diva perfectly.
Funny as ever, Raja still cuts quite an imposing figure, both literally and otherwise. At one time, she was the leggy defacto queen of The Heathers, casting side-eye at any "Boogers" who dared come for a crown that felt somewhat inevitably hers. Several years after her season of DRAG RACE first aired, she's no less riveting to watch but a little softer, perhaps; she's no longer impenetrable.
Singing Bananarama's "Venus" (Robbie Van Leeuwen) as she made her way up from the back of the venue, it was clear from the start that the vocals would be the queen's biggest hurdle. But it seemed as if Raja was well aware of this, and it seemed as if it may have impacted the show's structure.
Leading with a handful of live songs before transitioning into a lip sync-heavy chunk of the show following the live singing portion, there was a noticeable division in the show, though she helped to break it up a bit with stories and music videos during costume changes.
Even within that first segment, though, Raja seemed to grow increasingly confident as a singer, having a ball as she strutted through the crowd during a rendition of David Bowie's "Fashion" (because when you attend a Raja show, you should "get some runway").
When the number was over, she teased, "That's all the choreography you're getting, motherfuckers." It culminated in a cover of "Witchy Woman" (Don Henley/Bernie Leadon) by The Eagles that featured her best vocals yet, embracing the low tone of her voice. The venue's fan might deserve a co-starring credit, helping her serve up an endless supply of glamour and some truly excellent cape work.
"You don't know how fucking scary that was," she admitted after getting through those first few songs. What followed was a frank, confessional monologue about breaking the fourth wall and getting over fear to do the show in the first place. At one point, the queen explained that she believes it's the job of artists to be storytellers. But while the speech was emotionally revealing, the star was a bit more guarded when it came to the content of those stories.
And let's be clear: with a tease of colorful childhood stories of moving from Indonesia to California, or hanging with a friend's teen sister, who was on house arrest and taught him how to use liquid liner, it's clear the drag superstar has tales in spades. While the seeds were there, they could feel more like brief anecdotes than fully former stories.
Still, that's much easier to forgive when you're watching a drag queen who can seemingly bend time at her will, at least I'm pretty sure that's what she did during her stunningly beautiful lip sync to Sade's breathless love song "Is It a Crime?" Swaying along in a slinky black gown and running her fingers through her hair, Raja deserves kudos for sheer stamina, but the sensuality of the performance was next-level. While the number was quite long, it was kind of a drag when it ended, and that's a testament to Raja's charm.
Taking the mic again, the star introduced a new electronic single, "Divine" (Patrick Buckmaster/Derek Stilwell/Raja), confidently spitting out the words alongside the track and inviting the audience to join in on the chorus ("I'm so fucking fine, I'm so fucking... fine/I'm fucking Divine, I'm fucking Divine").
It was basic enough, but as someone who's seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of audience participation, it's rarely this smooth or, honestly, this fun.
Donning a Wonder Woman towel on her head like she did as a kid, Raja once again tapped into that so-called "forbidden energy." She recalled, "It was my dress, it was my cape, and it certainly was my fucking wig."
The pairing of that little childhood kernel with that song felt both incredibly personal and universal at the same time, tapping into the duality of the thing that makes you feel invincible also being the thing you're most afraid of.
That kind of synchronicity shows what Raja is capable of doing in a live show, and it was exciting watching her shift into gear. Getting one's first show off the ground is no easy feat, especially when you're as high-profile as she is. But now that Raja can no longer say she's never done a one-woman show before, it'll be fascinating to see what might come out of the next one.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.