Taking inspiration from Broadway and the hit parade, Velma Celli’s musical extravaganza hits all the right notes.
Velma Celli knows how to make an entrance. The minute she walks in the joint, all could see she was a girl of distinction, a truly big singer. Good looking and refined? Well, one out of two isn’t bad.
Standing 6’8” in her studded black heels and with a voice that could reach the back of beyond never mind the back wall of the Hippodrome Casino’s Matcham Room, Velma Celli is deservedly a formidable figure on the cabaret-with-a-small-c scene. She is the alter ego of Ian Stroughair, an actor and dance teacher who fuses his many talents into his singular creation.
While most cabaret singers are accompanied by another musician or two, one of whom usually doubles as the musical director, The Velma Celli Show is a full-on production with a trio of backing singers, another three playing an assortment of wind instruments, two guitarists, a drummer and a pianist who doubles as the musical director.
Stroughair’s work in shows like Chicago and Rent tells in many of the song choices. Numbers from both productions – All That Jazz and No Day Like Today – are well within his range and delivered with panache.
The pop charts provide fruitful pickings too. Hits from modern divas like Whitney Houston, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga are belted out to great effect, bringing the party atmosphere to a show largely devoid of audience interaction. Jessie J’s Nobody’s Perfect undergoes nothing less than a musical transmogrification; accompanied only by a piano, Celli turns the original overproduced dance number into a haunting torch song brimming with regret and recrimination.
Thankfully, Celli’s repertoire stretched beyond straight-faced interpretations. Some of the songs are given lyrical tweaks for comic purpose, for example Mein Herr from the musical Cabaret becomes a story of hirsute pursuits while Chicago’s Roxie is re-named Velma and becomes a tongue-in-cheek defence of the art of female impersonation; a manicured middle finger up is raised to those who dare criticise Celli’s calling (“Who said that drag is not an art?”) with tongue-in-cheek digs at the self-importance of other artists (“Kerry Ellis is going to shit I know/to see her name get billed below/Velma Celli.”).
Lyrics are not the only area where Celli mixes it up. Indeed, the show features a number of examples of wonderful mashups and simple but melodious collisions. Classic Bond theme Diamonds Are Forever smartly segues into Rihanna’s Diamonds In The Sky but thankfully stops short of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (we still haven’t forgiven William Shatner for his version). More impressively, Beyoncé’s Halo is worked into and around Adele’s Someone Like You and the British diva’s Rolling In The Deep rolls in the hay with Britney Spears’s Toxic.
And that’s not all. As if having a double-digit number of musicians on the Matcham Room’s stage wasn’t enough, two more divas join Celli in the second half. Tiffany Graves made quite the impression the other week with our reviewer while Kate Tydman is another veteran of the musical circuit. The three join forces to glorious effect on a multi-part melody on the theme of money which somehow melds snatches of songs from a series of unlikely bedfellows in Dollie Parton, Jessie J, Aloe Blacc and Travie McCoy.
This is a drag show, true, but that’s like saying Cristal is a fizzy wine. Stroughair’s creation is a self-professed contrivance – there are more than a few references to the male anatomy beneath the dress – but one that allows him to wear a sequinned dress, get creative, sing some wonderful songs and be utterly fabulous. Carry on, ma’am.
The Velma Celli Show returns to the Matcham Room on 17 May and 21 June.
The Velma Celli Show. The Matcham Room, Hippodrome Casino, London, WC2H 7JH. 2 April 2013. www.velmacellishow.com
With thanks to Miia Pollanen.