In 1999, at the zenith of my adolescent paranoia that was fixated on the imminent cataclysm of Y2K, a film called Blast From the Past spoke to me and my fretfulness. The film centered around a family who, after seeking refuge in a fallout shelter in the 1960s, reemerge in the 90s, and haplessly force their ‘60s sensibilities into the harsh new world as if 30 plus years hadn’t passed at all. As a peculiar kid raised by much older parents who often felt achingly like a massive square peg shoved into a miniscule hole, this kind of story intimately struck a chord. Maybe I was like the family of Blast From the Past: a generational transplant mushing unlike sensibilities together. That was it! I didn’t desperately need therapy at all!
20 years and innumerable therapy sessions later, I’m still fairly keen on the generational-discombobulation plot device, as it turns out. So, when The Vaudevillians, the creative project of Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales, was announced as to take the stage at Pittsburgh Public Theatre on July 11th-July 13th, my interest was peaked. The show checked all my boxes: a marriage between a boisterous flapper and a foppish dandy; tragic freezing in Antarctica; a classic “oh no, we’ve thawed into the future” situation; and absurdist scenarios and quagmires that must be resolved through cabaret remakes of songs by 4 Non Blondes and Janis Joplin. You could say I was tickled pink.
Frankly, though, I would giddily go along on any journey captained by divinely irreverently virtuosos Jinkx Monsoon (née Jerick Hoffer) and Major Scales (née Richard Andriessen). Jinkx Monsoon, the drag persona Hoffer created performing in all-age clubs at 16, and Major Scales, the artist-identity used throughout Andriessen’s extensive career as a composer and musician, have enjoyed ample success as individuals and as creative duo. The two are a dream-team: A sensationally multi-talented drag performer/recording artist (and winner of Season Five of Rupaul’s Drag Race), and a brilliant composer and instrumentalist who share a devilishly wit and searing cultural awareness. Listen to any of the infectiously catchy and fastidiously well-crafted songs on their collaborative albums, The Inevitable Album (2014) and The Ginger Snapped (2018), to get an understanding of the dazzling artistry and sly humor that defines their aesthic (I highly recommend starting with the absolutely haunting cover of “Creep” off of The Inevitable Album and “Just Me (The Gender Binary Blues)” off of The Inevitable Album). Or come to Vaudevillians and witness their creative vision that is part Cabaret review, part outrageous comedy and is the result of years of tireless work.
Vaudevillians is not the sort of show that can be pussyfooted through. The conceit—a husband and wife frozen alive in the 1920s who thaw out decades later and rework modern music into vaudevillian expression statements—is elaborate, and the language and music is imbedded with cross-generational referentiality and fiendish pacing evocative of a style of performance that is perhaps unknown to many audiences. To execute all of this convincingly while performing perfectly timed, reimagined pop classics demands a deep understanding and trust in your fellow performer. Luckily, Jinkx and Major have spent years creating an indomitable chemistry with one another.
The pair met while studying theatre and performance at Cornish College of the Arts in Washington State—where, fortuitously for Pittsburgh audiences, they met Marya Sea Kaminski, Artistic Director of Pittsburgh Public Theatre. Major’s studies and gifts as a composer and instrumentalist paired exquisitely with Jinkx’s performance style, and the two started to work closely together in and out of classes, training extensively in improv, theatre, musical performance and more. While participating in a student-run cabaret show, the two developed the idea for a show that would be the first version of Vaudevillians.
“We didn’t want to do any act,” Jinkx remarked during my conversation with the duo about their upcoming three-night stop in Pittsburgh. The pair put the prototype of what would be Vaudevillians through exhaustive workshops, test-runs, and reconfigurations to ensure that what they created wasn’t simply any old act. What began to emerge was an experimental theatre project in which Jinkx and Major would select contemporary pop songs—which Major would strip and revamp using his voluminous compositional knowledge and instrumental prowess—that they would challenge themselves to improvise around in a way that made sense for both their characters and the narrative context. The two would workshop and test out the show at any venue they could take over (coffee shop, open mic, student union, etc.) The model for Vaudevillians challenged and strengthened the nimbleness of Jinkx and Major’s improvisational rapport, but it also provided an opportunity to reexamine and reconnect with pop music by way refurnishing contemporary songs with a “1920s/1930s showmanship.”
“A lot of pop songs are very smart and well-constructed,” Jinkx commented, adding that often the cleverness of the lyrics and impressiveness of the songs’ compositions get lost in the over-saturated production style. In the various iterations and performances of Vaudevillians, which involved an ever-changing rotation of songs that Jinkx and Major would build improvised situations around, the two developed a new appreciation for the richness and complexity of a plethora of hits (like Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” for example).
After transitioning from performing Vaudevillians wherever they could to being sought out to stage the show for paying audiences, Jinkx and Major’s Vaudevillian alter-egos, Kitty Witless (Jinkx) and Dr. Dan VonDandy (Major), evolved into complex entities with mannerisms that resembled very specific facets of the pair’s theatre education. “We both took clown classes in college,” Jinkx acknowledged, recalling the emphasis on integrating “high class and low class” comedy that is tantamount to being a clown that in turn became integral to Kitty and Dr. Dan’s essences. The balance that a clown strikes between flamboyant silliness or crassness, intensive physical acting, and dramatic poise is key to providing comic relief as well as performing pointed observational criticism. With every new performance and reimagining of Vaudevillians, Kitty and Dr. Dan’s became more clearly derivative of the principles Jinkx and Major had learned in clown classes, their banter and antics simultaneously absurdly over-the-top and pointedly satirical. “It was not a conscious decision,” Jinkx laughed, but the characters’ organic evolution into two bawdy folks that epitomize classic clowns, complemented by a healthy dose of camp and drag aestheticism, seems completely reasonable to Jinkx and Major.
In the Vaudevillians world, Kitty grew into a “sexually voracious and anarchical woman” who is perpetually at odds with the dreary gender and behavioral norms of her era. “My first introduction to vaudeville when I was [a teenager] was Chicago,” Jinkx noted, and the brassy influences of women like Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly—with a healthy dose of the Jinkx Monsoon panache—are clear in Kitty’s character. Kitty’s audacious persona and sly indictments of cultural and historical climate are comically accentuated by her husband’s uncomfortable masculinity. Major’s Dr. Dan, well… “Dr. Dan is…the man,” Major stated with utter incredulity, explaining that his character is a “clearly repressed gay man” whose identity is fretfully constructed around maintaining an oafish, vintage construct of masculinity that is made even more ludicrous by how facilely his wife subverts and overpowers him. Despite their anachronistic 1920s showboating, Kitty and Dr. Dan are more suited for the modern world they are surreally transplanted—a theme deftly illustrated by how the repurposed songs of the likes of Gloria Gaynor and Cyndi Lauper songs speak more to the characters identities and self-expression.
After Jinkx’s 2013 Drag Race win, the duo focused on tightening the story and narrowing down the show’s setlist to take Vaudevillians on a national and international tour (including the UK and Australia). Vaudevillians has undergone a metamorphosis through several distinct stages: a totally improvised experiment; a more formatted show that was “distilled…into the ‘best of’ crash course of these characters and why they’re here;” to its current state, a “self-contained” experience that is the perfect admixture of traditional form and raucous fun. Vaudevillians current state has determined set-list, but Major pointed out that “the characters could have a whole lineage of shows…and [there] are hours-worth of songs for each [character].” Though the duo has moved from strictly improv to a more structured, narrative-driven cabaret format, Jinkx and Major can constantly channel the infinite arsenal of tricks they developed in their years of experimenting with the show and the characters.
Major and Jinkx remind that the show is “not a typical drag show…but a show that contains a drag queen,” so while audiences shouldn’t expect the usual uproarious shenanigans of drag shows (put that stack of ones away unless you’re buying some merch later), they can expect to witness a deviously funny, artfully constructed 90(ish) minutes of performance that will defy the expectations of a normal theatre experience. Those unfamiliar with vaudevillian style will perhaps need to spend some time “decoding of [the] language” and “training of the ear” to acclimate to the pacing (check out Jinkx and Major’s deep-cut recommendation “Varsity Drag” to get a taste of the “vaudevillian zaniness” that their show is partly inspired by). But once you get in the groove, brace yourself for a world of hurt: “people are in pain—they come up after the show and say their faces hurt from laughing… or they’ve cracked their ribs laughing,” the duo recounted of audience’s ecstatic responses to Vaudevillians. But as Cyndi Lauper and Kitty Witless say, “girls just wanna have fun”—and sometimes the best fun is worth the pain.
Vaudevillians will run at Pittsburgh Public Theatre July 11th-July 13th. For tickets and more information visit PPT’s site.