Celebrating a vibrant culture erased by homophobia: The Pansy Cabaret from Guys in Disguise, a Fringe review

Daniel Belland and Zachary Parsons-Lozinski in The Pansy Cabaret, Guys in Disguise. Photo by Ian Jackson.

The Pansy Cabaret (Stage 27, Nancy Power Theatre at the Roxy)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You just can’t go through the world assuming that drag shows will have overtures that are collections of vintage jaunty Edwardian songs played from a grand piano by an expert pianist (Daniel Belland by name). And you can’t expect “poignant” to be called upon to describe a show with that many sequins and a giant stiletto onstage. 

A century ago, in New York, in pansy bars, music halls, and pansy cabarets, on Broadway stages and in vaudeville, queer and gender fluid performers were putting it out there, in funny, playful songs and cheeky comedy routines. They were the highest-paid entertainers of the time, in a showbiz town.

Bert Savoy, 1929, The Pansy Cabaret, Guys in Disguise. Photo supplied.

The Pansy Cabaret captures that period when joyful expression and freedom seemed possible, and welcome. Guys in Disguise’s Darrin Hagen, a queer history researcher of note, has unearthed this fascinating and, he thinks, little known story. And it’s performed by a real sparkler of an entertainer, Lilith Fair (aka Zachary Parsons-Lozinski). She captures the sound and cadence of a century ago, feelingly. And she also salts the betweens and sometimes the middles with very funny contemporary winks and asides. .

The show opens, for example, with an amazing ode for a lost love by one of the period’s biggest stars, Daryl Norman (his mom made his costumes). And it’s followed by Ray Bourbon’s cheery “I’m back in drag again….  I’ve never like squeezing into BVD’s or shorts. Unless they’re on someone else.” 

Zachary Parsons-Lozinski in The Pansy Cabaret. Photo supplied.

Ms. Fair, who’s lightning quick on the uptake, has fun with the audience, even in a formal theatre. And she annotates with explanations, the origins of camp for one — a drag queen shield for “gender warriors” as she put it. 

The end of Prohibition was the abrupt end of the Pansy Craze and all its richness. Suddenly, a vibrant, witty culture died; access to stages and bars for homosexuals was verboten, by law. In Europe the countdown to the lethal perils of Nazism was underway.

And the queer voices that had sung songs and cracked jokes, vanished; they were silenced in a single decade.

The Pansy Cabaret is a celebration of that giddy, brave culture, a window into what once was…. We’re in Alberta, a slender border away from the steady grind toward repression. The moment is now for us to make sure that legacy doesn’t slip away.  

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