Joey Arias and "company" in ARIAS WITH A TWIST. Photo by Steven Menendez.
BOTTOM LINE: Spectacle, drag queens and puppets, oh my!
Puppets are magic. Anyone who can disagree with that statement hasn’t fully experienced being a child. Maybe they scare you, maybe they inspire joy, maybe you’ve been fascinated by their inner workings (I know I have). All of those feelings happen because they are magic. And drag queens possess a similar magic. Many of the same principles of illusion and imitation apply, and they are so much more than just a knockoff of “real.” Joey Arias is a true original, and Arias with a Twist pairs her brand of magic with that of Basil Twist and his cast of thousands. As the lights go down, the friendly voice that warns us to turn off our noisemakers also invites us: “let your inner child appear.” And what follows is an immense playground for that child.
A series of stunning visual dreamscapes begins with the closest approximation to a 1930s MGM opening credits sequence the stage can hope to offer. This immediately lays the scene for the particular combination of folly and nostalgia that Arias with a Twist is made of. The first 15 minutes create the most intense feeling of anticipation and childlike joy I have felt in quite some time. Here, we meet the Dream Music Orchestra, a group of four marionettes over 80 years old, whose program bio states they were made for Twist’s grandmother, and were his childhood inspiration. They play a wistful instrumental, with astoundingly lifelike and delicate body language (so much, in fact, that my musician date for the night was moved to comment upon it) and then it’s time to meet our girl. The first vignette is a '50s-inspired alien abduction, complete with flying saucers, glittering stars, and a voice who tells us that Arias, our heroine for the next few hours, is different. She is in possession of the Z chromosome — neither X nor Y, but something more. This, in my experience, encapsulates exactly what good drag should be, and what Joey Arias is.
Over the course of the show, Arias goes on a series of tangentially connected adventures that serve as the framework for her music and Twist’s images. Particularly wonderful is a drug trip, the intense beauty of which would not have been possible without Daniel Brodie’s projections of smoke, fire and mandalas (he also knocks it out of the park with a galaxy of stars). Much of the show is so potently visual that you cannot actually watch in the traditional sense. You have to expand your focus, and absorb. It’s wonderful. The final sequence takes us back to the Dream Music quartet, and a concert to rival any torch singer or showgirl from decades past, and a little Busby Berkley for good measure. If you were expecting a high-camp drag show, you’d be disappointed. But you’d still have a great time.
Arias’ voice, while not always pretty, is beautiful. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and Billie Holiday are all aptly and rivetingly tackled, as well as maybe the most beautiful “All By Myself” I have ever heard. She is expressive and heartfelt, and other times vivacious and bubbly. Twist’s puppets are imaginative and on all scales, he is an artist in foam and felt. From a tiny Joey to a larger than life satyr, his aim is just as varied and masterful as Arias’, and for the most part, they both hit the bullseye.
Arias with a Twist will clearly be enjoyed by the downtown theatre, drag and burlesque scene enthusiasts. But I encourage those who might not count themselves among that number to give it a try. Anyone who has ever been a child can find enjoyment in it. What we have here is a musical revue somewhere between Ziegfeld and the Muppet Show, and really, were those all that different in the first place?
(Arias With a Twist plays at Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand Street, through October 16, 2011. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 8PM and 10:30PM; and Sundays at 7PM. Tickets are $35-$65 and are available at theatremania.com or by calling 212.352.3101. For more show info visit ariaswithatwist.com.)