Of course, most drag shows are not concerned with psychological theory. They're entertainment, pure and simple. We watch. We laugh, though sometimes it's hard to say quite what we're laughing at. Female stereotypes? The efforts of a man to be a woman, in defiance of anatomy and implausible clothing?
Often, the humor is broad and risqu -- or maybe that should be spelled "ris-gay," for drag shows usually have a markedly gay component. There tend to be sexual double-entendre jokes accompanied -- perhaps to keep the straights comfortable -- by a wink at the audience.
Sadie and the Ant in ... Just Sing, starring Brian Peterson, which recently packed Le Chat Noir, is a very different kind of drag show.
Sadie Sheperd (one of the animas of Brian Peterson) is the star of the show. She's a zoftig blond with a penchant for tight black dresses. She enters carrying a wireless mic, and while she occasionally indulges in a bit of banter or gives us glimpses of her life story, she mostly just sings.
Nowadays, drag shows tend to be lip-synced. Peterson, however, is a veteran of the show My-O-My -- a tribute to the old My-O-My Club -- which ran at Le Chat Noir in 2005. In his research for that show, he learned that drag performers back in the '50s really sang and used live rather than recorded music.
Of course, really singing raises the bar in terms of holding your audience. It also raises the possibilities in terms of expressiveness.
Now, it would be false to pretend that some of the initial fun of Just Sing doesn't come from the droll double image of a man/woman luxuriating in show biz glamor. Sadie has a breathy voice and a knack for naughty pauses that put spice in otherwise innocent remarks.
She sings with confidence and gusto from the classic songbook of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway show tunes, big-band hits and newer songs made famous by vocalists like Barbra Streisand. Sadie introduces some of the songs, but I haven't the slightest idea where some of the others came from. Then again, some apparently are pretty obscure. Sadie said she and her partner (Anthony "Ant" Sears) had a hard time tracking down the sheet music to one of the lesser-known numbers: "To get the music, Ant had to put down a grandmother in an eBay arm-wrestling match!"
Just Sing was almost ready to go when Katrina hit. Naturally, everyone took off in different directions. Sadie ended up in Atlanta, she tells us mournfully. She decided she would never get on stage again.
"I don't want to be cute no more / I don't want to hear men hoot no more."
So she sings, but we don't believe her for a minute. Nor does she want us to. Part of her charm is, in fact, the collusion she establishes with the audience about her seriousness or lack of it. In any case, she even tried waiting tables. For one day. Then she came back, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ricky Graham directed Just Sing and also collaborated with Peterson on the script. Su Gonczy did effective lighting. Ryan Hesseling and Brad Caldwell designed the swank set. Accompanist Ant Sears, who also served as music director, plays a synthesizer, so the arrangements vary agreeably.
As you may have noticed, I began by referring often to Brian Peterson but I have gradually switched to Sadie Sheperd. The reason for this shift of focus is the show itself; Just Sing goes through a subtle, remarkable transformation. Sadie becomes real. Brian vanishes into her.
Sadie remains a somewhat absurd character -- a vaudeville diva of the Mae West variety. She connects with us directly and on her own terms. As the show progresses, she starts taking chances when she sings -- in the sense of throwing herself into the song. Her phrasing is apt, both musically and expressively. What is one to make of this peculiar, perplexing creature? What is one to make of this peculiar, perplexing enjoyment? What on earth would Dr. Jung make of it all?
Well, on a more practical level, it's worth remembering that Brian Peterson won two Big Easy awards for his portrayal of women of the stage. Maybe, in bringing Sadie to life, he was just doing a great acting job.
In any case, keep your eye out for Sadie's next appearance. Or Brian's, for that matter.