BY: ANDREW NODELL
Descending into the subterranean performance space of New York’s Chelsea Music Hall, one discovers a low-lying catwalk flanked on either side by an intimate collection of chairs forming several rows. A fully stocked bar lines nearly one wall of the clubby space where the evening’s crowd begins to gather for “Cleopatra: The Experience,” a musical extravaganza set in Ancient Egypt. While the sets were simple, designer and stylist Nicolas Putvinski’s sequined and studded costumes (think: “Dynasty” meets Frederick’s of Hollywood), choreography, and vocals were energetic and engaging.
The evening is emceed by drag queen Dusty Ray Bottoms, who competed on the most recent season of VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, this rollicking depiction of the Egyptian ruler’s sordid life features a non-stop 90-minutes of songs echoing the historical rap style of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
The show features the talents of an acrobatic dance troupe who bounce off the catwalk and swirl around the audience in all directions. The show’s frenetic pace is a visual delight — The best way to enjoy this “immersive experience” is to truly “immerse” (i.e. don’t get too hung up on the technicalities of the storyline and take advantage of the bar, which remains open for cash service throughout the performance.) As an added FYI, guests are occasionally singled out for audience participation, making a drive-by to the bar an especially good idea.
Those left behind in their seats may take pause at this potentially cringe-worthy moment of non-voluntary exhibitionism if not for the ice-breaking prowess of Dusty Ray Bottoms. Another notable performance comes from Nya, whose vocal strength and stage presence will undoubtedly introduce her to more prominent roles both on and off-Broadway.
At several times the Egyptian storyline is suspended completely for isolated moments of strict entertainment, as when the stage becomes the scene of an underground nightclub of Nineties New York complete with a Vogue ball competition (the only thing missing was a fog machine). With the opportunity to imbibe before, during, and after the show, this off-Broadway production is pure eye-candy that prepares even the most cynical for a carefree night on the town as only New York could offer. Following the frenzied finale, the runway and seating were removed as a DJ entered for those looking to at least try to emulate the skilled movements of director and choreographer JT Horenstein’s lithe cast. This is the perfect precursor to a night of debauchery in the city that never sleeps.
Don’t come to The Cleopatra Experience with the emotional expectations of a Tennessee Williams production, but that’s precisely the point.