As we approach the final weeks of the season, it seems fitting to assess the state of the drag on Commercial Street, given its outsize prominence among the town’s entertainment options. I’m happy to report that the drag shows in Provincetown have never been better. Production values are rising, costumes are sparkling in all the right ways, and the messaging is more political and pointed than ever.
Show and drink prices are also rising, and the nonscientific consensus is that box-office receipts are down compared to last year. It’s far from an isolated issue. Prices are hitting record highs all over town. That means visitors may have to be choosier about where to spend their entertainment dollars than in past seasons. With that in mind, here’s a rundown of shows I’ve seen so far this summer that I think are worth the splurge.
This is by no means a comprehensive or definitive list of Provincetown’s best drag. It is merely my recommendations for some shows I found particularly worthy.
The triumvirate of Miss Richfield 1981, Varla Jean Merman, and Dina Martina continue their reign as the standard bearers for exceptional achievement in drag performance and the core of Provincetown’s seasonal offerings.
There is no other performer I know who can do what Miss Richfield 1981 can do. Her shows have the loosest of frameworks. The current show is titled “Bad Advice,” but they are mostly interchangeable from year to year. There’s just enough of a storyline to get the party started and to wrap it up beautifully in a feel-good song-and-dance (and a musical saw).
The magic happens when Richfield interacts with her audience and mines them for comedy. Each time I watch her begin to move from her script into audience engagement, my stomach drops with fear of the what-ifs: What if this audience is full of boring people who won’t play along? What if this is the audience that finally defeats her? But it has never happened. She kills it every time. Is there another comedian in America with Richfield’s track record of success? I doubt it. So where are her annual Netflix specials?
Speaking of comedians who deserve national attention, will someone in Hollywood please step up and put Varla Jean Merman’s “Stand By Your Drag” on television? This stellar production at the Crown & Anchor deserves to be seen by the greater American public. Brilliantly written by Jeffery Roberson (a.k.a. Varla), Ricky Graham, and Jacques LaMarre, the show has much to say about the state of the union and the current wave of politically motivated attacks on drag. But this is not a lecture or a dry civics lesson. These truths are served under layers of show biz panache.
Merman’s impeccable comedic timing here is on par with any top-tier comedian who can fill an arena, and she should be filling them, too. Kudos to everyone involved. Gerald Goode at the piano, the guy in the Tic Tac costume, the projections, videos, lighting, and costumes are all first rate.
At every Dina Martina show — this one is called “Sub-Standards” — there’s a point where my throat starts to hurt from laughter, and I ask myself, “Why is this so funny?” But in all these years — Martina is celebrating her 19th season in Provincetown — I’ve never landed on an answer that sufficiently encapsulates the Dina Martina experience.
Like Varla Jean and Miss Richfield, Martina is a fully realized character. There are no lip-synching or celebrity impersonations in her act. She is always Dina. But who is that? Is she an entertainer who doesn’t realize that she doesn’t have any talent? That’s not quite it. Martina has tons of talent. It’s just…different. Anything Ann-Margret can do, Martina can do…just differently.
Whatever it is, it’s like a drug. I start getting antsy for more Martina as soon as I see the first posters go up in May, and one dose is never enough. I laugh too much to catch everything the first time around, and it’s not a show where I want to miss anything.
Tina Burner is a New York City queen who is bringing a dollop of Broadway professionalism to the Wave Bar at Crown & Anchor. There’s a fun mock Playbill on every seat (although I would happily have digested more content). Burner has the triple-threat talents needed for a terrific show. If the producers of Chicago are looking for another RuPaul’s Drag Race alum to play Mama Morton after Jinx Monsoon’s stellar turn, Burner would be sensational in the role. What are you waiting for?
Meanwhile, Qya Crystal is proving herself to be Provincetown’s most exciting live-singing diva. She is seemingly everywhere in town, singing up a storm in different venues and different styles. “Intergalactic Disco” is a once-a-week celebration and a great way to kick off your Friday night. Singing a mix of prepared and requested hits of the mirrored-ball era, Crystal, our own Donna Summer, doesn’t miss a note. Talent like this deserves to be nurtured. We can only hope some of our deep-pocketed local producers will create a bigger and better spectacle for this Queen of the Night or we’re going to lose her to a bigger city. Meanwhile, get over to the Crown on Friday night and get your funk on.
Latrice Royale’s latest effort, “Life Goes On,” recently wrapped up an eight-show run at the Pilgrim House. It is a polished and surprisingly sophisticated turn. Royale does not rest on pretty. Musical gems like “If I Can’t Sell It, I’m Going to Sit on It” by rhythm and blues giant Ruth Brown are artfully arranged and impeccably delivered. Royale has a pleasant and sometimes quite lustrous quality to her voice, reminiscent of Chet Baker, another jazz artist from a vanished era. The whole show is suffused with glamour made manifest before our very eyes.
Mid-show videos are part and parcel of drag. Whereas most are comedic, Royale’s video is a black-and-white lip-synch to Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a song written in response to the murder of four young Black women in the bombing of an Alabama church in 1963. It’s a gutsy and moving tribute, and Royale and her team deserve kudos for taking big risks. Royale is supported by her husband and musical director, Christopher Hamblin, on keyboards. Let’s hope she comes back for a longer run next year.
I love a quick costume change, and Miss Conception does it better than anyone. In “Tooned Out,” her show at the Pilgrim House, she slips from character to character with just a few accessories and a seemingly endless number of zippers, presenting a parade of popular animated figures with pop songs delivered with live vocals. Celebrating her fifth season in Provincetown, she delivers on all fronts — costumes, comedy, singing, technical razzle-dazzle. The whole thing is a rousing crowd-pleaser and suitable for audiences of all ages.
Miss Conception comes across as a genuinely nice character. There’s not an ounce of mean-spiritedness in this native Canadian’s show. It’s fitting that she’s sharing a venue with Miss Richfield 1981, who has always epitomized being comical and kind. Special mention to Conception’s hilarious low-rent backup dancers. They add a welcome dose of crazy to all the polished show business.