Phoebe Legere @ Dixon Place
The incomparable Phoebe Legere is Joe Carstairs in the World Premiere of SPEED QUEEN, a zany musical mashup by the Queen of performance art.
By: Patrick Christiano
March 10, 2018: The one and only, Phoebe Legere, is at it again, pulling out all the stops for a wacky ride in her madcap musical, Speed Queen: The Joe Carstairs Story. With a book and score by the Star herself, the witty evening is an often-irreverent look at a little known gay pride pioneer through the lens of a definitive New York icon. The result is nothing less than sensational with Legere turning up her star wattage to portray not only the butch lesbian, but a series of her glamorous girlfriends that included Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, and Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly.
The high-octane evening is a giddy mashup of fact and fiction as high society meets Hollywood glamour in Legere’s lampoon of Joe Carstairs’ captivating life story. The daughter of an American heiress and a military father, who deserted her, Carstairs was born in England and called Marion Barbara Carstairs. However, she lived a promiscuous privileged life as an out lesbian, wearing custom made men’s clothing, and calling herself Joe.
Early in her life she opened a London car service, staffed entirely by women, and in 1925, when she inherited her mother’s fortune, she established herself as an eminent race boat driver. One of her girlfriends, Ruth Baldwin, gave her a little doll dressed in men’s clothing that she called Lord Todd Wadley. The doll became her cherished mascot, and Legere has created a replica that sits atop her baby grand piano providing many spontaneous whacky moments. Carstairs purchased on island in the Bahamas that remained her home until she sold it in 1975, before retiring to Florida where she died at age 93.
Legere is front and center throughout the evening in a tale fashioned to her unique gifts and dynamic talents. She plays a sizzling piano, a mean accordion, and sings like an angel with a four-octave range, all while delivering deft impersonations of Joe and her legendary girlfriends. This is Phoebe Legere at her daring and comic best, tongue in cheek throughout an audacious evening of madcap camp.
I attended the first preview performance, where Legere took us on an ingenious roller coaster ride, as she seamlessly incorporated several technical challenges into a mesmerizing evening of performance art at its flawless best. She is a clever comedian performing a high wire act of skilled improvisation along with stretches of beautifully crafted songs. Some of the musical highlights are “Sex, Speed & High Society,” “Bitch Stole My Look,” “You’re Awesome,” “Mummy Was A Junkie,” and the finale, “Rainbow Family.”
The evening unfolds on a relatively bare stage, except for a baby grand piano and a dressing screen, where Legere makes outrageous costume changes to additional comic relief. There are also film clips and slides that are projected onto the theater’s back wall, and a slew of imaginative props, which Legere incorporates capriciously into the disarming evening. Some of the best bits include an imitation speed boat that Legere mounts to race about the stage. And her Tallulah Bankhead raging at Bette Davis for stealing her stage roles and mannerisms is an absolute riot. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocracy can pay to greatness.” Are you listening Lada Gaga? Long live Queen Phoebe!
Directed by Lissa Morra with David Zen Mansley.
Speed Queen: The Joe Carstairs Story is now playing at Dixon Place, 161 Chrystie Street, through March 24. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.dixonplace.org
Production Photos: Peter Yesley