at Coronet Playhouse

Masquerade Follies is the type of drag show in which guys in sequined evening gowns pose in front of a tinsel curtain and lip-synch to recordings of pop or show tunes. Typically, some vague attempt is made to impersonate the singer–Diana Ross, Marilyn Monroe, and Judy Garland are favorites–of the recording. Such shows are usually staged in bars, for predominantly male and extremely drunk audiences. And in that context, the success of the show depends less on the talent of the female impersonators than upon the rowdiness of the audience. Masquerade Follies, however, is staged in a 420-seat theater and, the night I went, there were only ten people in the audience, including myself. It proved to be a very sober evening.

Only a few numbers into the program Joey Brooks appeared in the guise of Dolly Parton, although he looked more like a cross between Tammy Faye Bakker and Meat Loaf. Drawing on Dolly’s homespun, gregarious nature, Brooks made a rehearsed attempt to rally the little audience. He would have done better to call it an evening right then and there. But, in the worst tradition of show business, the show went on, and on.

If anything, Masquerade Follies is comprehensive. Aside from such staples as Monroe, Garland, Ross, Midler, and Minnelli, the evening’s bill included impersonations of Dietrich, Hayworth, Streisand, Bette Davis, Julie Andrews, Tina Turner, Katharine Hepburn, and (why not?) Michael Jackson. And that’s not the half of it. The amazing thing is, what with this huge cast of characters, and five female impersonators engaged in a frenzy of wig and costume changes, that none of the impersonations really hit the mark. The best of the lot was Tracy Davis’s performance of–and this is really going to make you wince–Liza Minnelli singing “New York, New York.” But even here the portrait was askew, because I’ve seen Minnelli live, and Davis lacks her bogus enthusiasm and repulsive sentimentality.

In general, Davis gives the best all-around performance, not because he can impersonate anyone in particular, but because he comes closest to passing for a woman. More confusing are Causha Lee’s Marilyn Monroe, who slightly resembles Barbara Bush, and Joey Brooke’s Mae West, who–I don’t know–is a sort of singing laundry bag. A lot of times, if it was too dark to read the program, or I couldn’t identify the character by her wig, I was at a complete loss to guess who the clown onstage was supposed to be. Quite often, even the music didn’t help, since the sound system was so bad that you couldn’t make out the lyrics, much less recognize the voice on the recording.

I think the major problem is that this isn’t really an honest venture in female impersonation. The performers haven’t sufficiently studied their subjects and therefore can’t offer anything more than a few trademark tics or gestures (overdone and compulsively repeated) by way of characterization. Chenelle Austin and D’ion McKay don’t even do that. Austin only manages one all-purpose performance, and McKay’s Dionne Warwick and Lena Horne are indistinguishable.

So why do these guys do this? I suspect that they like to dress up in sequined evening gowns and live out private fantasies in public. In public, but not in a pub, since these performers obviously take themselves (if not their art)–dreadfully seriously and don’t want to invite a lot of heckling. Anyhow, you can’t tell me this is an art. An art has something to share with an audience. In this production the audience only acts as a mirror for the performers’ vanity–all ten of us, four of whom had the unmistakable look of parents, and friends of parents, of someone in the cast. After all, this is a show that only a mother could love.

What does that leave? Female impersonators who can’t impersonate, lip-synch, or negotiate the stage in spike heels. The music is no diversion, since the sound system is as brassy as a 750-watt car radio. Nothing can be said for Jim Fargo’s direction except that it moves right along, considering the overwhelming catalog of musical numbers. And Andrew Waters’s choreography is no big deal.

Yet there’s dancing, which sure enough proved to be the most memorable part of the evening. Right from the opening number, when one of the male dancers attempted to lift one of the female dancers and nearly crumbled under the effort, I knew I was in for a treat. Later on in the show there were a few spills, although nothing tragic or really worth mentioning. Nor is the supporting cast capable of rescuing this show through dance alone. Indeed, Brien Fisher could use a little support himself, and one can be picked up at any sports or dance store. Yet not quite hidden among these occasionally stumbling, absurdly smiling avocational hoofers is a single true professional–Kimberly Rheam.

Rheam can dance. She doesn’t upstage the other dancers, or slap you in the face with her talent, but your eye is drawn to her magnetically. Her every step has that seemingly effortless precision that comes from a lot of hard work. Her extension is surprising. Her body is like a rope. What’s a pro like her doing in a drag show in Evanston? Beats me, but I’ll take what I can get. My only criticism of Rheam is that she could do an unchallenging show like this in her sleep, which sometimes appears to be the case.

Well, every show has something. For me, it’s Kimberly Rheam’s dancing and the firm resolution never to see another drag show unless I’m hopelessly drunk. For the four older folks in the audience–who, God bless them, sat through the whole thing and gave it a standing ovation–I guess there’s the sort of pride that only comes from unqualified parental love. As for the 410 empty seats in the theater–maybe those people had the right idea all along.