If you think a mega-famous pop star like Beyoncé and an ancient Egyptian queen like Cleopatra have nothing in common, think again. They are both worshipped religiously by their followers, both have expensive taste in clothes and jewelry, and both have a penchant for dating famous bad boys. Or at least those are the parallels teased out by the new immersive pop musical Cleopatra, now playing at the Chelsea Music Hall venue. In this production, historical accuracy goes out the window in favor of flashy dance numbers, sultry love ballads, and audience involvement. Cleopatra is equal parts drag show, pop concert, and Broadway musical, and, though it has some rough edges, it is surely a good time.
Though breakout vocalist Nya does indeed have Beyoncé-grade singing chops, she also possesses a sound that’s entirely her own and simply divine. Her voice is bolstered by the play’s infectiously pop-infused music (by Jeff Daye) and lyrics (by Daye and Laura Kleinbaum). Many songs from Cleopatra’s book could easily be pop hits on the radio today by the likes of Calvin Harris, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, or Katy Perry. Indeed, Daye and Kleinbaum have captured the essence of a contemporary moment in pop music where tempos build and explode into clubby, ecstatic instrumental frenzies.
While Nya has the literal voice of an angel, her characterization of the Queen of the Nile is a bit too cool and disengaged to elicit the kind of adulation from the audience that seems to possess her ensemble of Egyptian followers. Her duos with Marc Antony (Christian Brailsford), Iris (Sydney Parra), and Octavian (Corbin Payne) are vocally electrifying, but deserve more attention and finesse from director and choreographer JT Horenstein. Overall, Horenstein nails the punchy format of a pop concert but neglects to create more intimate theatrical moments of tension and passion between the play’s lead roles (Cleopatra, Iris, Marc Antony and Octavian).
As a whole, Cleopatra’s ensemble (Alexia Sielo, Audrey Rose Young, Brendan Henderson, Cody Mowery, Timothy Wilson, Yuriko Miyake, and Alison Ingelstrom) is wow-worthy, mostly serving up supporting dance and vocals that one might expect at a Super Bowl halftime show. At other times, however, their performances are uneven, as some performers deliver with more energy than others.
Cleopatra bills itself as being immersive and participatory, but it’s no more immersive than a night at any drag show, in which queens might pull audience members up on stage for laughs. Indeed, this is exactly what RuPaul’s Drag Race star Dusty Ray Bottoms does as the Mistress of Ceremonies, inviting spectators to sound off on a catwalk battle between three audience members. The presence of a drag queen as emcee makes very little historical or aesthetic sense, but then again, this is not that kind of show. Bottoms adds comic relief and queer glamour to a show that is as glittery as the wig atop her head.
Taken at face value, Cleopatra is a good time that should get even better as logistical kinks (such as timing and spatial organization) are ironed out, and perhaps some dramatic scenes are more fully realized. The new Chelsea Music Hall venue has a full bar and wait staff, who come right to your seat (or standing place) so that Cleopatra is best experienced as a night out with friends.
Cleopatra plays through Jan. 27 at Chelsea Music Hall (407 W. 15th St., below Chelsea Market). Performances are at 7 p.m. on Wednesday; 7 and 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and at 1 p.m. on Sunday. The venue opens a full hour before the show with a menu of Middle Eastern street food and a full bar. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights attendees at the first show may stay for the second show in standing room, free of charge but subject to availability. For tickets and more information, visit cleopatraexperience.com.