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March 4, 2006

Wigged Out

Las Vegas Review-Journal (NV):

Ben Schatz is firmly convinced he would bomb as a stand-up comedian. "No one would sit still for it. They would walk out," he says dismissively. But put him in a wig and a gown and call him Rachel? Then Schatz becomes a character he knows as well as the writers of "Will & Grace" must understand Jack and Karen. "Rachel is not a role I'm playing. Rachel is someone I know," he says. When people come to see "Dragapella," they're seeing "80 minutes in the lives of people who have been living for years."

Schatz is co-founder of the Kinsey Sicks, the singing, ultra-fabulous quartet behind "Dragapella," which opens today in the Las Vegas Hilton's Shimmer Cabaret, taking its place in rotation with "Menopause The Musical." "The drag that we do, one of the ways we use it is sort of giving us an ability to say all sorts of (stuff) and get away with it," co-founder Irwin Keller says. "Some of it is biting political satire and some of it is cheap raunch. And some of it is deeply touching, serious stuff. "And people are willing to take that whole journey with us, in part because we present ourselves in a way that's ridiculous and allows people to just go along."

At least the "cheap raunch" part gives hope for a revue that marks a bold departure from anything the tourist corridor has seen in a drag show. Not only do the performers do their own singing, but they manage to name-check James Joyce, Marcel Proust and the '60s cult movie "Barbarella" in the very first song. "We're less fluffy than people sometimes think of as a Vegas show and I think that's good," Schatz says. "I don't think there's a better place for us to be now than Las Vegas. People come from all over looking for something interesting and entertaining." "That would be us," Keller chimes in.

Schatz and Keller had a previous life as attorneys and AIDS activists before their alter egos, Rachel and Winnie, took control of their lives. The group started as a lark when four friends attended a 1993 Bette Midler concert dressed as the Andrews Sisters. Since then, the two have steered a comic idea into a full-time enterprise. The lineup has changed slightly -- Chris Dilley joined in 1998 and Jeff Manabat in 2004 -- but the focus remained on distinctly drawn characters offering elaborate vocal harmonies.

"I think the thing that has to be clear is these guys can sing. The comedy is great; the harmony, fantastic," says director Glenn Casale, who has worked with the group for several years, independent from his current job in the theater department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "People here, they think drag guys can't sing."

"I don't think there's a linear progression from lip-syncing to other things," Keller says of the departure from Vegas shows such as "An Evening at La Cage," in which a comedic host introduces lip-syncing celebrity impersonations. "I don't think you have an opera singer onstage and say, 'Why isn't she tap dancing?' These are different forms."

"Dragapella" has tested Las Vegas several times since 2004, coming in for weekend engagements. Nevada-based producers Paul Reder and Rich Super -- who also backed "Forbidden Vegas" at the Westin Casuarina -- have helped the San Francisco-based troupe achieve its goal of a sit-down run in Las Vegas. "Artistically, it has always been very important to us to go into a place where the real estate market is out of control," Schatz quips.

The four are so committed to Las Vegas, Schatz says they "put a considerable amount of thought and planning" into a new revue, then crowd-tested it in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. They resurrected an old tune about Celine Dion and added a new one about buffets into their mix of song parodies and original tunes. "In writing all these jokes about Vegas we learned even more about our characters," Dilley says.

To get all four Kinseys around a table together is like trying to interview the Marx Brothers -- Marx Sisters? -- as they crack each other up by pondering such things as a double date with "Forever Plaid" ("Forever plowed!" one exclaims) or the idea of a high school version of "Dragapella." "I think part of the chemistry people see in the show is about the fact that we have such fun backstage," Keller says. Though it's not easy for the marketing department to convey on a cab top, Schatz likes the fact that "Dragapella" defies a quick description. "We're not a knock-off of anything," he says. "We're not trying to be like anyone else, and we're not trying to be original. We're just being authentic."

Posted by acapnews at March 4, 2006 12:18 AM