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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

RuPaul's Drag Race: “Shade: The Rusical”

Illustration for article titled RuPaul's Drag Race: “Shade: The Rusical”
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Drag queens lip sync for a reason. For most RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, singing well is low on the list of priorities, which makes the musical challenges some of the show’s most difficult to sit through. This season, Drag Race taps into one of the touchstones of gay culture, musical theater, for the singing challenge, breaking the queens into two groups that each perform an act of “Shade: The Rusical.” With this many queens singing on stage, the production has all the makings of a total flop, but it’s actually one of the best singing challenges this show has ever had, thanks to enthusiastic performances and a surprising amount of raw vocal talent.

The singing portion of the competition usually occurs later in the season, but the producers accelerate the rivalry between former Idol contestants Adore Delano and Courtney Act by giving them the opportunity to show off early in the game. Last week’s episode widened the gap between the two cliques of queens, and now, the individual rivalries are starting to get developed on the editing floor: Adore/Courtney is the big one this week, but there’s also Bianca’s growing enmity with Gia and Trinity, two of the season’s younger queens who need to grow up.

In the episode of NPR Monkey See’s Pop Culture Happy Hour I linked to in last week’s Stray Observations, Linda Holmes talks about how one of the things that kept her from fully enjoying Drag Race at first was that it’s a show populated by “theater people.” That covers a huge spectrum of personalities, but what it boils down to is that these people are always performing, which can be a lot to handle. Everyone on a reality show is performing to some degree, but the contestants on Drag Race spend a solid portion of their everyday life playing a costumed alter ego, and that bleeds in to their out-of-drag persona once the cameras are rolling.

Even when these men are not painted and padded, they are playing their queens for the entirety of their time on this series. It’s why their drag names are used exclusively. Seasoned queens like Bianca, Dela, and Courtney are able to balance their male and drag personas, but the younger fish like Adore, Gia, and Laganja just play their drag characters all the time. Darienne is the oldest of the group, but she has the same mentality as the young girls when it comes to her performance, working her drag schtick at all times until she wears it out. Bianca may be bitchy at all times, but there’s a difference between bitchy man Bianca and bitchy drag Bianca. With Laganja and Darienne specifically, there’s extra effort to keep the female mask on at all times, which ultimately makes their acts tired in execution.

I say this with the deepest love and respect for what they do, but musical theater people tend to be the most obnoxious type of theater people off-stage. Because musical performers sing, dance, and act, there’s a sense of superiority that breeds competition within groups, meaning there’s going to be a lot of showing off when you get musical theater people together in one place. Adore and Courtney have that dynamic, making this challenge a battle to prove which former Idol contestant is the stronger Drag Race vocalist.

I can’t imagine how rough it must be in that workroom as Adore and Courtney try to out-riff each other, but that rivalry ends up feeding their performances to make them both standout. Courtney ultimately comes out on top because she understands that there’s more to performing in a musical than just hitting the notes, and the extra polish she brings to her appearance and characterization makes her the winner of this week’s challenge. Considering the group of queens involved in the first act—Dela, Courtney, Bianca, Darienne, Trinity, Gia—it’s not a surprise that it’s the better half of “Shade: The Rusical,” but that’s also not saying much when the material relies on “backrolls” for gravitas. (As usual, Lucian Piane is responsible for the music you are desperately trying not to mute.)


As winners of an arbitrary minichallenge that requires no actual skill, Adore and Dela are team leaders for the musical, and once again, April gets screwed by ending up with Adore. April won’t play the butch queen again but she’ll play the plus-size queen, which is another role she’s not at all suited for. There aren’t any plus-size queens in the group, so that role is going to have to go to someone who isn’t physically right for the part, but after being in the bottom last week, April should be playing harder to guarantee her safety. If there was more discussion in assigning roles, maybe Adore would have learned that Milk has a pregnancy belly that she could use to play plus-size better than a queen like April.

As this season’s sole Puerto Rican queen, April also has a language barrier to overcome, so it’s a bit unfair for her to have two scripted challenges in a row. She’s dealt a bum hand and doesn’t do much with it, landing in the bottom because of her lackluster performance and runway look, specifically the shading referred to as a “forehead beard” by the judges. Facing off against Trinity in the lip sync, April gives a soulful interpretation of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” but there’s a sense of melancholy that makes it a strong goodbye lip sync rather than a performance that will keep her in the competition. Trinity delivers the uplifting, triumphant energy the judges are looking for, and she shantays to safety, while April sashays away.


Bianca’s mouth is bound to get her in trouble at some point, and she’s surely going to get the “show more vulnerability” speech from the judges, but like last week, all the shade Bianca throws is deserved and usually comes with some kind of constructive criticism buried under the cattiness. In Untucked, we see more of her conflict with Trinity, which largely stems from Trinity acting like a homesick child instead of applying herself in the challenge. Trinity is young and is having a hard time being away from home, but she has to get over that and get to work because there are other people depending on her.

Having been picked last for the last two team challenges, Trinity knows that she’s not the most popular queen, which makes her extremely defensive whenever anyone offers criticism. As guest judge Sheryl Lee Ralph, Broadway’s original Deena Jones in Dreamgirls, tells Trinity on the runway: “Put a cork in it.” Trinity needs to learn when to accept criticism with a smile and a nod no matter how much she doesn’t like hearing it, but she also needs to actually grab a piece of cork and put it between her teeth so that she can practice her enunciation.


The musical takes up a big chunk of time, so the runway looks are rushed through without any commentary from Ru or the judges. It results in considerably fewer puns and comments for Stray Observations, and I would have rather had some of the workroom filler cut to make room for those runway comments. Milk finally delivers something kind of feminine but it doesn’t really match the criteria of Tony Awards glamour (whatever that means), and her pregnancy belly reads like a superficial attempt to be different without having a strong foundation for the edginess. Milk’s personality has yet to live up the promise of her bizarre looks, and she’s just not very entertaining once you get past the visual (both in and out of drag).

For Milk and the other queens that have skirted by on looks, a reckoning is coming next week. Yes, it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the Snatch Game. The preview has Ru proclaiming it as “the tightest Snatch Game in history,” and with Bianca as Judge Judy (!), Darienne as Paula Deen, and Dela as Maggie Smith, that’s not hard to believe. Queens need personality and wit to be successful celebrity impersonators, and next week’s challenge will go a long way to determining which contestants are sticking around for the long haul.


Stray observations:

  • Tonight in Untucked: Gia acts ignorant when she’s called ignorant. Milk defends herself. Laganja has a total ego-trip meltdown when the queens stop talking about her family moment, shows how ignorant he is. “This wasn’t a moment for us to be characters!” Ignorant.
  • Joslyn Fox is definitely shaping up to be this year’s Alyssa Edwards when it comes to playing the endearingly dim queen. 
  • I’m not going to justify that minichallenge by talking about it in the main review. A “male or she-male” picture ID game belongs in the Untucked gold room and nowhere else.
  • Fran Drescher + steamroller + dying duck = Gia Gunn’s singing voice
  • The Santino/Michelle clash is already getting old, and it will probably be a season-long thing. No one cares.
  • Milk’s pregnancy look is a flop, but I love her Grizabella realness during the musical.
  • Sheryl Lee Ralph is excellent as a guest judge. She offers great criticism and has the perfect level of enthusiasm.
  • “Are you in a White Snake video? What are you doing over there?”
  • Joslyn: “I’m the butch queen.” RuPaul: “You’re the butch queen? Where you gonna draw your inspiration?” Joslyn: “Bianca Del Rio.”
  • “I can’t be a downward Debbie. I don’t know what her name is.”
  • “What’s a Tony?” SMH
  • Santino: “My posse’s on Broadway, Ru!” RuPaul: “Well my posse’s on fire!”
  • Tonight’s Sondheim references that will go over Gia Gunn’s head: “Here’s to the ladies who tuck!” “I’ll drink to that!”