Shequida: Jessye Normous
Shequida is the drag alter ego of Jamaican-born, Julliard-trained opera singer Gary Hall, and Jessye Normous is the drag alter ego of Shequida. This is all quite meta for the small world of cabaret, but what really matters is that his/her/their new show was a mostly hilarious and highly entertaining event.
The evening began with a cleverly devised video (the first of a few) done in Jurassic Park/Godzilla style, as a panicked New York runs away from a gigantic threat, at first only indicated by loud booms and tremors reverberating through the buildings and streets. The threat was revealed to be “the biggest opera singer in the world” on her way through Times Square to her engagement on West 42nd Street. In an over-padded gown and massive wig, and claiming to be “the first Negress of opera,” Jessye Normous cut an imposing figure as she lumbered/waddled through the packed house at the Laurie Beechman Theatre to climb to the stage with audience assistance. Her opener, the drinking song from La Traviata, immediately revealed her incredible voice, which served as the glue holding together the wildly funny arias and bits that filled her time on the stage.
Her greedily longing looks at the food on the ringside tables gave a special meaning to her next song, “Adieu, notre petite table,” from Manon. As she bid her little table farewell, her passion for singing and eating were revealed in equal measure. Even with her overstuffed costuming, her physical comedy was terrific—whether it was her lips vibrating with insane energy on every held note or her legs fluttering in synch each time her vibrato kicked in on an outlandish “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Preceding this, she had some choice words for the “little bitch, Audra McDonald” who stole her role for the Broadway production.
Her voice remained a marvel throughout the show, but appeared to tire a bit as things proceeded. This may explain why there seemed to be a shortage of musical numbers. A lot of her patter was funny, but it could have been tighter. She broke character as she strayed into tasteless and pandering asides that might have suited the Shequida persona, but seemed out of place voiced by Jessye Normous. Early on, she broke herself up (Carol Burnett style) as she threw out a “spontaneous” aside. This was effectively funny the first couple of times, but she returned to it so often it became a tiresome crutch. Another video (a skiing adventure at her Swiss chalet in New Jersey) took a long time to get to the payoff—but when it did, the laughs were long and hard.
The video marked time for a costume change to a Christmas Angel unlike any other. As the angel, Ms. Normous gave the audience a bit of a cappella Madonna (“Like a Semi-Virgin Touched for the Second Time”), and then some hip-hop and rap like an operatic Mrs. Miller. She climaxed the show with “Barcelona” (Freddie Mercury, Mike Moran), singing both Mercury (on video) and Montserrat (or in the show, “Monsterfat”) Caballé, which showed off both her musical and comedic chops to great effect. It left me wanting more, but in this instance, that wasn’t entirely a good thing because more was needed to make the enterprise fully satisfying.
Laurie Beechman Theatre – December 6
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”