The smell of poisoned lip gloss is in the air at the debut of Drop Dead Gorgeous! A Drag Murder Miss-tery. The show features Auckland-based drag cabaret act Les Femmes – Miss Manage (Jeremy Hinman), Miss Demeanour (Jared Morello), Miss Givings (Olly Humphries) – as a group of gorgeous, shady and somewhat thick-headed queens who aren’t past a light touch of murder if it means they can snatch the crown at the 69th annual Miss Mature Tween Queen pageant. And, oops! As we enter, queen four, Miss Conceit, is already dead, her ribs broken by the crush of a corset, and her legs sticking out from the gold sequined curtain of the gloriously garish set like the Wicked Witch of the East. That’s one hell of a death drop. In between pageant acts – the swimsuit parade, the interview section and a deliciously funny talent show – the queens are interviewed by a guest detective, who follows a murder scenario specific to the night. There’s evidence, intrigue, more murder, multiple costume changes, sexual scandal, a theme song, a shock revelation and finally an answer. Does it make any sense? Thank you for that excellent question. I don’t think it matters, because it’s a very good time.
Actor Amy Straker (in a great trenchcoat) joins us on opening night as guest detective. There’s a whiff of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit in that she’s given a manila folder with a script and set of instructions, some of which are randomised based on audience input, and needs to read it cold, going where the current takes her. It’s really a big ask of the guest, especially as the role involves narration and some crowd work, alongside interviews and deduction. Straker, nonplussed, is an absolute pro. She swiftly builds a ‘you’re kidding me’ relationship with the audience that carries us through the ridiculous scenario, especially in a few points where the wheels nearly come off, and exaggerated stage whispers from behind the set have to put us right.
There’s also a very enjoyable tension between the queens’ droll understatement and charming, dim-witted, character tics – performances that sometimes feel casual, offhand – alongside the high camp and over-the-top drama of the drag and pageant conceits. They have charm for days. This all reads very well in Little Andromeda’s intimate theatre space, and I’m glad we get to experience it at this scale, as a bigger theatre – with bigger performances – would be quite a different show. But the show is also powered by some big chaos energy: things work, don’t work, fall apart and pull back together. Straker pops in and out, in a state of cheerful bemusement, as if she’s been parachuted into a Stoppard play (Bette Davis and Joan Crawford Are Dead?). It’s sometimes hard, especially near the beginning, to sense how much of this chaos has actually been baked in, and how much of it is this new show, at a COVID-rescheduled season, breaking in its size 13 stilettos.
How can you be mad at something so silly though? Les Femmes are a class act. They lean into the mess, giving the audience (and each other) side-eye while they move through delightfully wooden pageant choreography, slap each other round, gasp at the next outlandish reveal and flash their (rubber) tits and teeth. All three are musical theatre professionals, so in an art form where many performers lip sync we also get some great vocal work. My companion and I particularly love that Hinman, Morello and Humphries don’t just rehash easy drag tropes and references (although there’s a slew of all the callbacks you like to Noises Off, Miss Congeniality…), but offer well-rounded, full fleshed out characters. It helps that the show’s design is gorgeous, too.
It’s clear that there’s some serious garment steaming to be done, especially in the way interactive and scripted elements are communicated (or not) to the guest performer and the audience. On opening night it works best when it’s lamp-shaded, and we’re all in on the bedlam. But it’s also fun seeing behind the curtain, so I hope that in the glow up some of the wrinkles stay in. I’d happily go again, but darling, it’s deservedly sold out.
Drop Dead Gorgeous! A Drag Miss-tery plays at Little Andromeda from 24 – 27 March 2022.