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The audience milling about the Queen Elizabeth Theatre lobby at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday reminded me of Commercial Drive at 8:00 a.m. on Halloween: a few folks in glorious, over-the-top ensembles, some with simple paper crowns or monster ears dotting their otherwise everyday attire, and more still dressed “normally” (read: boring as hell). I fell into the third category, my turtleneck and Levi’s less a reflection of how uninteresting I am (I hope) and more a reflection of how unfriendly the Queen E’s air conditioning can be. There was groups of friends, parents with children, adult parents with adult children, and even one of my university profs (a Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice instructor, classic).
No one looked out of place at Sasha Velour‘s “Smoke and Mirrors,” which I think is exactly how she likes it. The RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9 winner has long been known not only for her outrageous get-ups and lip-synch smackdowns, but for speaking out on hot and ugly issues like feminism, queer rights, depression, anxiety, and loss.
“Smoke and Mirrors” is all about illusions. Velour herself introduced the show by admitting she wasn’t quite sure how to describe it. The “part bootleg magic show,” part “sexy self-help seminar,” and part artistic endeavor consisted of 13 lip-synched performances curated by the queen herself. Some were intimate acts she holds close to her heart (like Shirley Bassey’s “If You Go Away,” a touching tribute to her mother) and others her esteemed claims-to-fame (like Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional,” which earned her the RPDR crown in 2017).
As intimate as the performance was meant to be, there are some barriers to making an audience of over 2,500 feel cozy. It wasn’t like a small-scale local drag show, where there’s plenty of interaction between queens and audience. A large part of the performance was projections, which were mostly spectacular but occasionally lacklustre, dependent on the live aspect. For example, her rendition of Judy Garland’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” was a gorgeous, intense, funny harmony of body and screen. Velour kicked up “water” (perfectly timed projections) and suffered a series of electrocutions by lightning, manifested in magically quick wig changes that became more and more bizarre with each strike. A less impressive act was Barbra Streisand’s “I Stayed too Long at the Fair,” which was projections only, basically like watching a film. Still a fabulous lip-synch, but nowhere near as stunning as a live performance.
My biggest “oh, damn” moment was during Celine Dion’s “I’m Alive.” This number was backlit against the projection screen; the audience watched Velour’s silhouette get changed between acts. That in itself would have sold it for me—it was beautiful in its simplicity—but then (spoiler alert) the lights went off and Velour appeared in the audience, giving the mezzanine an unexpected close-up of her in all her kaftanned glory. The show ended with another emotional number (Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind”) featuring the queen in another spectacular ensemble: a tree-shaped gown that grew and changed via projection. Like each number before, it was dripping with metaphor.
As fabulous as the lip-synchs were, the moments where Velour took hold of the microphone were better. Her humour and wit are so immediately obvious that, combined with the straight-up truths she’s telling, it’s hard not to scream and snap after every sentence. She’s certainly the most quotable queen I’ve ever seen live. She told stories of adapting and changing, of family and feminism, and of cyclical rather than linear growth. I found myself searching for my ex-prof in the audience, because I know he must have been just giddy basking in her glamourous activism. We might have come for an illusion, but what we got seemed radically real—a perfect storm of fashion, performance, and socially-conscious sermon.