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Velma Celli's A Brief History of Drag

★★★★★ Broadway World UK “A Fantastic Celebration Of A Beautifully Bold Artform” – Jade Kops
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Broadway World

Jade Kops

Monday 4th February 2019, 7:30pm, The Factory Theatre, Marrickville

The bold, brilliant and beautiful Velma Celli made her Sydney debut to an enthralled crowd with her informative, intimate and highly entertaining A BRIEF HISTORY OF DRAG. Sharing songs and stories, UK’s queen of live vocal drag gave a diverse audience an insight into the sequin and glitter world of guys dressed as girls.

In A BRIEF HISTORY OF DRAG, the statuesque Celli shares not only a history of the overall Drag genre but also her own evolution from West End musical theatre singer and dancer Ian Stroughair to the celebrated Drag performer famous for presenting live performances of songs around the world. With support from Steven Kreamer on keys and back-up vocals from Eliza Jackson, who also doubles as director, powerful ballads and iconic anthems pepper the work that is presented with not only strength but also vulnerability and honesty.

In towering mirrored “day shoes”, which quickly get swapped for covetable crystal encrusted stilettos, a backless micro mini dress of iridescent leaf shaped paillette sequins, and a liberal dose of glitter eyeshadow to match the featured footwear, the boy from Yorkshire’s alter ego takes to the intimate stage for the 80 minute show. Refreshingly, Celli has opted to forgo the traditional weave of her drag sisters in favour of Stroughair’s shorter cropped blonde locks, adding to the uniqueness of her image. The evening has the intimacy of a cabaret show and the sound of a mainstage concert (albeit a little overblown for the small space at times which hopefully is the venue will rectify for future shows it hosts) whilst Celli utilises the space well, including getting up close and personal, perched on the edge of the stage, and also interacting with Kreamer and Jackson with a delightful warmth and playfulness.

Velma Celli, who draws her name from the show Stroughair was performing in and the meal he was eating at the time of her drag-birth, delivers and evening that celebrates the Queens that paved the way for it to safer for Drag Queens and the LGBTIQ community to perform and just generally be whilst also making the story personal. She honours them with the songs favoured by many performers but delivers them with her own amazing powerful voice in rich textured renditions that can both capture the passion and poignancy of pieces that range from pop songs to musical theatre favourites. Text driven pieces, like LA CAGE AUX FOLLES “I Am What I Am”, QUEEN’s “I Want To Break Free” and RENT’s “No Day But Today” in particular, are presented with clarity to ensure that both underlying messages and the importance of the work to Celli are clear. She is a consummate cabaret performer as she connects with the audience with heartfelt stories that include self-deprecating humour and a sassy and sultry style that radiates joy beyond the physical expression.

That blossoming of female roles in the mid 20th century is called out by Dreaver after the Rodgers and Hammerstein sequence, albeit while introducing numbers from Gypsy (burlesque dancer strips for the entertainment of men) and Oliver! (woman sings ballad about returning and returning to the abusive husband who would ultimately kill her). But while the politics of the characters may be in dispute, the performance of the songs is not: Ria Jones’s Rose’s Turn is magnificent, while Rachel Tucker brought back memories of her emergence in the BBC series I’d Do Anything with a performance of As Long As He Needs Me that far outshone anything she or any of the other contestants accomplished on that show, and which demonstrates how far she has come in the years since.

Whilst Velma Celli’s Sydney season of A BRIEF HISTORY OF DRAG was an all to brief one night only, she continues her Australian tour to Perth Fringe. For Sydneysiders though, hopefully she has had a taste of our town and will want to come back soon as she is definitely a must see.

Dirkcsey Magazine

Tiarne Lambert

“Good evening bitches”. Showered in thousands of sparkles from the disco balls and her fabulous sequined dress, Velma Celli arrives.

Presented by Lambert Jackson, Velma Celli’s: A Brief History of Drag is a must-see for any drag-loving queen. Instantly engaging, humorous and charismatic, Velma has you in the palm of her hand with her captivating voice as she takes you on a musical journey through the history of drag; telling stories of the moments that impacted gay culture forever and shaped her into the “fabulous drag beast” she is today.

From the moment Celli takes the spotlight, you understand why this formidable force is known as the UK’s “queen of live vocal drag”. Her extensive theatre background is apparent in both the stage presence and flawless vocal talent she brings, never missing a musical or comedic beat. The show starts with a sultry rendition of Lady GaGa’s ‘Marry the Night’ as we join Velma and her talented four-part band for an intimate, pride-filled night. From the pop culture moments like Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and RuPaul’s Drag Race that put drag culture in the mainstream, to the musical icons like Queen and Bowie who gifted closeted queens worldwide with the courage to be themselves, Velma rocks us with her powerhouse vocals as she puts her own moving spin on hits from across the LGBTQ+ timeline. She even dares to tackle Whitney, and absolutely crushes it.

After each musical interlude, Velma explains what the song means to her and how it helped shape the world’s perception of gay people and their rights as “homosexual homo sapiens”. In true cabaret fashion, we are taken on a roller-coaster of emotions as the audience shifts from belly laughing at Velma’s impressions of Tina Turner, Brittney Spears and the infamous Cher, to serious reminiscence as she discusses the influential Stonewall riots. The band provides skillful backing with both ambient accompaniment and pauses to emphasize Velma’s comedic wit.

Velma commands the audience, even putting them in line when she has to. She will have you up on your feet, singing along, and laughing out loud. Even the band was laughing along, proving that every experience is unique and outrageously entertaining.

A Brief History of Drag is a must-see for any fan of musical theatre, show tunes, and a sexy Liza Minelli-inspired night jazz tunes. Velma will leave you wanting more (which you can get in her next Fringe show Equinox).

Mystery Case

Mystery Case

UNDER PRESSURE…

Following a successful UK tour and a smash hit run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Uk’s queen of live vocal drag, Velma Celli is back in Perth for Fringe World 2019 with her showstopping cabaret, A Brief History of Drag.

To bring you up to speed, Velma is the alter-ego of West End star Ian Stroughair. Stroughair has appeared in hit musicals such as Cats and Fame and most recently, received critical acclaim for his portrayal of Angel in Rent.

My absolute favourite show and performer at Fringe World last year, I wasn’t convinced this show would be as good the second time around. Oh boy… even knowing what may or may not be coming… this serving was even more delicious!! AND… (yes it’s a BIG “AND”) that’s despite a couple of rather enthusiastic possibly heavily intoxicated audience members who did their best to laugh (inappropriately), talk and heckle their way through the show. Velma the true professional, handled the over-enthusiastic audience participation element splendidly. Almost making it seem like part of the performance when I know it must have been a real distraction. And what a performance.

Velma takes us on a passionate pilgrimage through some of the best moments in drag history including music, pop culture, film and theatre with songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Kinky Boots, David Bowie, RuPaul and more. So much more. Interlocked impressively with stories from drag history, that help shine a light on some of the political decisions that affected gay culture and historical moments like the infamous Stonewall riots.

Velma’s journey to drag is just as impressive. Having played almost every venue in London including a two-year residency at the Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square, as well as the legendary Birdland and 54 Below in New York City. Also performing with pop icon Anastasia and musical theatre legends including Ruthie Henshall, Kerry Ellis and Francis Ruffelle, and a recent appearance in the Olivier award-winning circus show, La Soiree.

VELMA CELLI’S A BRIEF HISTORY OF DRAG??

Highlights of the night? Basically, the whole set. From start to finish. A Brief History of Drag is such a high energy show that it’s hard not to be dragged (pun intended) along for the wild and wonderful ride. The live band that also feed off Velma’s energy deserve more than a mention especially given the smoke machine that went into overdrive in their direction towards the end but Velma owns the show, the stage and the audience, even the unruly element of the crowd. We were all under Velma’s spell by the end of the night. Truth be told Velma had me the moment she took to the stage. Possibly before.

If I had to play favourites… there was Velma’s powerful rendition of Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’, the hilarious Diva vocal impersonations (everyone from Cher to Britney) and of course the encore performance which I’m not about to go into specifics because… spoilers.

Thankfully there is no photo or video evidence of me kicking up my heels, doing my best impersonation of Elaine’s questionable dancing moves from Seinfeld, at the end of the show. If there is any evidence, may it self destruct, quickly.

My only gripe, apart from the audience members who needed to learn a little etiquette when it comes to audience participation… the 60-minute show, even running over for a deliciously homegrown encore, just wasn’t long enough. I for one wanted more, more, more and I know for a fact I wasn’t alone in this regard. I could easily front up night after night for this show. If only my Fringe schedule had some wriggle room. With 13 more shows to go for me, it doesn’t.

Thankfully Velma Celli is dishing up a second more intimate and slightly longer show, Equinox, from Monday and it’s on my Fringe list. You can bet your bottom dollar, I’ll be there sitting front and centre with a truckload of glitter on pretending I’m the only one in the audience. Quietly, you should join me!

6 worth casing stars out of 5. YES… that bloody good. Our cringe to fringe meter doesn’t even come into play for this one. GO GRAB YOUR TICKETS NOW!

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The Fourth Wall

Laura Money

There is only one word to describe Velma Celli: phenomenal. In A Brief History of Drag, Celli pays homage to the Queens who made it all possible. The movers, the shakers, the gender-benders, and the bold performers who said anything was possible if you just stay true to yourself. Bursting onto the stage in rainbow sequinned glory, Celli is fabulous from head to toe. In the opening number from Lady Gaga – someone Celli draws inspiration from because she is so comfortable in her own flamboyant skin.

This show is so raw and honest – Celli tells her story and interweaves it with the songs and stories of the trailblazers. Starting out with a love of musicals, and performing in the West End, creating the drag act – I would just like to point out that everything about Velma Celli (especially the name) is on point! Her makeup is flawless, outfit flawless, stage presence – you guessed it – FLAWLESS! It is an absolute joy to watch Celli from beginning to end.

Celli performs the usual suspects – showtunes from Chicago and Rent, Cher, Priscilla Queen of the Desert – but there are a few surprises. There is a stunning tribute to Freddie Mercury and David Bowie (not going to lie, a tear or two did escape!) and some wonderful arrangements that prove that Velma Celli is a force to be reckoned with. A Brief History of Drag doesn’t shy away from the uglier moments in LGBTQI rights. It is hard to believe with such an encouraging audience that people had to fight (an continue to do so) for their rights just to be who they are. Velma Celli pays tribute to those who came before her and then some!

Isolated Nation

Sharmaine Tan

If you’re looking for a show that will leave you star struck and in awe, look no further than Velma Celli’s: A Brief History of Drag. Known as ‘The UK’s Queen of Live Vocal Drag’, Velma Celli’s outstanding talent, theatrical sassiness and razor sharp wit certainly does not disappoint. From start to finish, Velma provides spine-tingling, tear-jerking, jaw-dropping vocals, perfectly paired with her incredible showmanship and entertaining persona.

David Bowie, Queen, Gaga and Priscilla fans rejoice – Velma’s versions of these iconic artists’ music will get your toes tapping, fingers snapping and trust me, by the end of the night, you’ll be up dancing. To say that her killer vocals and stage presence blew the audience away would truly be an understatement. When Velma sings, it makes you feel as if you’re about to spread your wings and soar. It would be safe to say that everyone in the room was grinning from ear to ear – how could you not, when such undeniable talent is embraced and nurtured to the point that truly, a star is born? Better yet, she’s come to Perth and you’ve been given the honour of getting to experience her talent live in an intimate performance, just metres away from where you sit. Having had years of experience in high end musical theatre, a range of gigs and various sell-out shows, it’s no wonder the queen truly enchants everyone as soon as the first notes leave her mouth.

More than just a drag queen with heavenly vocals and vicious humour, it’s clear that behind the act, Velma is a brilliant character with amazing emotional strength. The show didn’t just consist of risqué jokes and salacious sassiness – there were moments of raw honesty and eye opening stories, as well as beautiful music with lyrics that hit you straight in the heart. Her rendition of ‘I Am What I Am’, originally by Gloria Gaynor, combined with stories of previous hardships were enough to bring the audience to tears. The strength and perseverance conveyed was awe inspiring, heart wrenching, and gave the audience the opportunity to form a genuine understanding and connection to Velma’s true self.

Supported by incredible pianist Joe Louis Robinson, sleek guitarist Harry Love, gorgeous songstress Eliza Jackson and drummer Jasper Miller who never missed a beat, this incredible team of artists are definitely a force to be reckoned with. Do not miss out on this incredible cabaret/comedy show – for a night of incredible entertainment from start to finish, you just can’t go wrong with Velma Celli.

Stage Whispers

Flora Georgiou

We all love a good drag show and when one pops up that is defiantly different, first we raise an eyebrow and then embrace the new with open arms.

Velma Celli, aka Ian Stroughair, delivers a novel new show that is honest and bona fide authentic. More importantly it is his own personal story as a musical theatre artist and journey into solo performance.

While working in the West End on endless Chicago performances he goes out one night in drag with cast members from Priscilla Queen of the Desert. He finds himself singing his heart out at Karaoke night, at a bar where he is instantly hired as a regular drag performer. Yet to have a drag name, the night ends in Chinatown – while slurping on his noodles he comes up with Velma Celli (vermicelli).

Velma Celli is stripped back, short cropped hair, high-heels and a glittery slip dress belting out torch songs with passionate zeal. He carries a distinctive low -key style that is so fashionably camp with stories of life on the road.

His love of pop music is evident with his song choices, and his inspirations are gained from the rock greats like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. Celli feels the pressure and is determined to give his best; he is tenaciously unbreakable. He challenges his vocal range with a collection of song medleys from Whitney Huston, Cher and Anastasia. His back-up singer Eliza Jackson and pianist Domenic Woodhead add to the cabaret like ambience.

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Weekend Notes

Fiona Anderson

More versatile than vermicelli

Englishman Ian Stroughair rocked Chapel off Chapel in his recent performance of Velma Celli’s A Brief History of Drag. An immediate presence on stage, the larger than life character ‘Velma’ quickly had the audience singing, bopping and clapping along to an energy packed program of songs.

Immaculately made up, right down to the gorgeous spangled dress, over the top makeup, and impressive (though not entirely reliable) multi-coloured nails, Velma is tall, athletically built and commands the audience’s attention from the start. But what of the voice?

Velma sings beautifully too. No icon of drag queen parody is safe in this 75-minute show. Hitting the stage with Lady Gaga’s Marry the Night, we quickly realise that, unlike many other artists in this genre, Velma does her own – very musical – take on these songs, rather than trying to replicate the original artist, (or, horror of horrors, lip sync to the track from the original artist).

After going through the rather complex process of changing from her ‘house’ shoes into her ‘show’ shoes (with the help of an audience member) Velma is soon back on song with – what else, but Sex is in the Heel, from Kinky Boots.

While the show is entitled A Brief History of Drag, Velma informs the audience that it is more a brief overview of Velma’s own life as a drag queen. And so, the audience is treated to some insights of Velma’s evolution, from the first tentative (high heeled) steps to the strong, confident performer we now see.

Velma is not afraid to have a dig at the audience either, with a pout here and a snipe there, when our response was not entirely to her liking. Velma even made an (by her own admission not entirely successful) attempt at an Australian accent.

While it was a strong performance throughout, I felt Velma truly hit her (stiletto) straps, in a musical sense, with the first of two inspired medleys she sang which took us through a selection of Britney Spears, Tina Turner, Anastasia, Shakira and Cher.

The second medley (the big finale) was a selection of Priscilla Queen of the Desert favourites. These selections demonstrated Velma’s range and capability as a singer, as well as her ability to thoroughly engage the audience.

After the show, I had another of Velma’s numbers I Am What I Am from La Cages Aux Folles going through my head, and pondered whether it perhaps summed up Velma’s outlook on life.

My partner Dave (who saw the show with me) made an interesting observation after the show, and that is that he hopes Velma/Stroughair does not restrict her/himself to performing drag. Nothing wrong with drag, it’s just that Stroughair is clearly a multi-talented performer whom we could see fitting in equally well to other performance genre – stage musicals in particular.

he wonder of it is that A Brief History of Drag played for two nights only in Melbourne. With Midsumma just getting underway now, why, I can’t help but wonder, was Velma not scheduled to perform in Melbourne a few days later and participate in Midsumma? It is, as Velma herself might very dramatically say, a travesty!

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