By Michael Reubens, New York
If you say Velma Celli really fast it could be easily transposed to the Italian pasta Vermicelli – and that’s done on purpose. In part, a food pun but more importantly the character, as in Velma Kelly, in the Broadway hit Chicago, immortalized by the incomparable Gwen Verdon many years ago, which Ian Stroughair aka Velma Celli as a solo performer succeeds admirably in a metamorphosis so brilliant that every song, every choreographed move, every nuance, had me spellbound from beginning to end at New York ’s premiere Supper club, Studio 54 Below.
This import from the UK doesn’t or shouldn’t be referred to as yet another Drag Queen. He/She entertains throughout while screaming delightfully “hello bitches” as she made her entrance in a way Billy Porter in Kinky Boots, Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig, or even Tim Curry in Rocky Horror entertained in gender-bender roles, that of illusion personified and this performer does just that and more!
In between narration, ICONIC, A Brief History of Drag, Velma Celli goes on to explain how she spins a web of intrigue and humour by story-telling past and recent anecdotes of appearing as a female impersonator and actor in between recounting Life in London ’s Gay Scene, appearing in hit West End shows like Cats, Rent, Fame and Chicago, to name but just four.
Tributes and refefences were made to Boy George, Freddy Mercury, Lady Gaga, Tina Turner, and more. But it’s the clever re-working of lyrics from Roxie (Chicago), that brought down the house along with Happy Days are Here Again/Get Happy made famous by Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. This time around welcoming an audience member to join her on stage, an actress from London, now US resident Frances Ruffellle, who created the rôle of Ėponine in the original West End and Broadway mega hit Les Misérables.
Sweet Transvestite (Rocky Horror) followed and the culmination of I am What I am (La Cage Aux Folles) ending with “…from those queens that have gone before me…” references made to Stonewall 1969 to now, to Lily Savage, a famous drag queen from Liverpool to Dame Edna Everage, housewife superstar from Australia, to the late Danny LaRue from London, and 1979, the year being gay became legal in the UK.