Brandy Lee has a past plus a bright presence
When: Final show at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Aug. 17)
Where: Treetops Restaurant, in Manoa Valley.
Admission: $48.50, for buffet and show
Brandy Lee, a legend in local burlesque, clearly is a museum piece, with roots at The Glades, the historic now-gone Hotel Street club.
In “Boylesque,” playing for the last time Wednesday (Aug. 17) at Treetops in Manoa Valley, the venerable Lee sings with competence but her patter includes ribald humor. A hefty 35-minute opening segment, where she struts from stage into the audience to personalize her stories-with-song, is amazing. She’s stood the test of time.
Here is a radiant veteran — she won’t pinpoint her age, but think seventy-something — who dons sheer gowns, feather boas, faux eyelashes, lofty wigs and high heels. Hers is a craft from the past — but here she is, a reigning queen of drag, a remembrance of times past.
Something old is new again, to borrow the ol’ phrase. Her startlingly charming act lasts one more night — though the Pagoda Restaurant may be her next destination this winter.
Producer Jack Cione, who encouraged Lee to come out of the mothballs and accentuate the vocals, believes she’s still got audience appeal. Drag queens usually lip-synch, so if one “sings,” it’s a rarity.
The voice is not perfect, but Lee’s song choices reflect cabaret-style confidence that isn’t readily heard these days. A ditty dubbed “Peel Me a Grape,” with innuendo and intricacy, suits her mystique.
She adores audience feedback, so she kibitzes with the crowd in-between tunes, revealing an edgy and honest posture. Her “C’est Si Bon” is vocally and visually a exclamation point in her style — she pouts and pours out a romantic mood, the glow arising from beneath a humongous white headpiece and feather boa punctuating her sheer gown. It’s showgirl stuff, from trans or hetero revues from the past.
But she’s not totally yesterday in repertoire; she puts her own spin and style on Elle King’s current “Ex’s and Ohs” hit, which had some of the house mouthing the lyrics, too.
Historically, Lee traces her performing roots to The Glades in Chinatown, co-starring with Prince Hanalei in the 1960s. “I left my heel marks on Hotel Street,” she says at one point. Over the decades, she worked in clubs from San Francisco to New York, and became a Universal Show Queen in a pageant of female impersonators. She also did local musical theater (“West Side Story” and “Show Boat,” at the Honolulu Community Theatre, before it became Diamond Head Theatre) and headlined at Cione’s Forbidden City, in the heyday of drag shows.
Earlier, she tried singing but failed — so this late-blooming element of her career is a work in progress but her coming-out party.
Lee’s gambit here is somewhat blurred by an array of lip-synching songsters and dancers —showgirl-boylesque performers in scanty wear, bejeweled, plumed and glitzy in stripshow fashions. While a garment may be removed to display briefs, there’s no nudity.
This secondary show is part of Lee’s Jewel Box Revue; while curiously entertaining, they are “fillers” that allow her to exit the spotlight and return in a change of hair and gown. Raquel Gregory (who delivers saucy, vaudeville-like sketches relating to old age), Jerrica Benton (who renders rigorous, stunning splits) and Bucky Stun Gun (a sleek and agile trouper) perform with earnest dedication. Further, lip-synchers from Cione’s recent “Follies” at the Arcadia and Kaimuki High School’s auditorium do a few tunes, including a costumed “Circle of Life” segment with a lion, a zebra and a cougar, from “The Lion King.”
Amid this landscape of eye candy, Lee remains the prevailing queen. Though she gets away with a few naughty words, her wit and hilarity out to carry her sans expletives. The singing should be Lee’s brand.