Misogyny, gratuitous nudity, exploitation and betrayal might not seem like key ingredients for a comedic piece of musical theater to arrive on the stage of a San Francisco theater, but Showgirls! The Musical is exactly that and relishes its campy, horrific origins.
The musical, already a runaway hit in New York, makes its West Coast debut at the Victoria Theater on August 10. It’s a satirical adaptation of the 1995 film Showgirls, the story of a young woman who goes to Vegas to become a star showgirl and stripper – at great personal cost.
But here’s the thing – the musical, through the alchemy of theatrical irreverence, turns all the awfulness of the movie into a comedic show that stars a drag queen and helped a key actress work through her own experience with sexual assault. How?
Well, for one thing, the film has long been embraced by people as campy ridiculousness that should be laughed at – most notably by Joshua Grannell, who, as his alter ego Peaches Christ, has been screening the film and accompanying it with deliciously outrageous drag shows for some 18 years.
“If a drag queen could be a movie, it would be Showgirls,” Grannell said. “It’s extreme and offensive and outrageous and hilarious and campy and wonderfully over-the-top.”
The screenings were a hit – along with the free lap dances that came with each order of a large popcorn. (The lap dances will make an appearance at the musical version as well, but since the musical is a full-length show, they must be limited, and a precious three will be auctioned off to be enjoyed during intermission.)
Peaches Christ will also appear at Humphry Slocombe on Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m., where the ice cream makers have created a special “Peaches and Popcorn” flavor specifically to celebrate the musical’s West Coast premiere.
New York’s MediumFace Productions also saw the film as ripe for ridicule in 2013, and the musical became a reinvention of the film with an entirely different message. A year ago, Grannell reached out to MediumFace to help set a West Coast show in motion, complete with a full band, and live cast, a complete departure from screening the film.
“It’s awful stuff. It’s women treating each other terribly. At face value it’s misogyny homophobia and politically incorrect,” Grannell explained. “But because of who is presenting it and how it’s being presented, we’re laughing at all those things and making fun of those things.”
For April Kidwell, who played the lead role of Nomi Malone, desperate to become a naked star of the stage, the show even became therapy.
“Going into this, I was raped earlier that year,” Kidwell said. “[It was] most challenging experience of my life, and Showgirls in particular was this godsend. It was this auspicious, deeply spiritual cathartic release for me.”
Today, five years after the attack, Kidwell is in a better place — thanks partially to therapy, but also thanks in part to facing and processing her own trauma through a character who had experienced the same.
“It helped, it’s had a significant profound impact on my healing experience,” she said. “I am a complete testimony to the healing power of art.”
The show is raunchy and ostentatious and “not for the easily offended,” as Grannell put it. But there is an undertone of respect and mutual support and joy to it all.
For one thing, proceeds from the lap dances to be auctioned off will go to the Shanti Project, a charity that supports people living with terminal illnesses.
“It’s an across the board tradition in drag culture to raise money and to help folks that I’m proud to be part of,” Grannell said. “I don’t know the psychology there other than we’re folks who were beat up and understand the need to be brave.”
And while she and others in the cast spend a significant amount of time almost completely naked, Kidwell described the theater as a kind of safe haven.
“I’ve noticed a special bond with all of the cast members. There’s this element of nudity, and there’s never been any cattiness,” she said. “We all truly have each others’ backs because we’re all in this very vulnerable position regarding our bodies.”
Plus, the stars (of the show) are in alignment.
“This woman is a spectacle. If you thought Elizabeth Berkley was over the top in the movie, just wait,” Grannell said of Kidwell.
“Peaches is a really nurturing and compassionate leader and very humble person and it’s been a joyous experience thus far,” Kidwell said.
Funny, because the trait Grannell said he most identified with in Cristal Connors, the mentor showgirl Kidwell’s character eventually pushes down the stairs in the film, is that she is “the wicked villain.” As the venerable Peaches, Grannell is watching and waiting for the next brilliant queen to shove him out of the limelight.
“She’s the older showgirl who has to watch out for the younger ingenue ready to push her down the stairs…As someone who’s been doing drag in San Francisco for 20 years it’s very relatable for me,” he said.
But what does he do when he spots such a young up and coming talent?
“Typically my way to deal with that is to be inspired by them and then cast them in my shows,” he said. “I think it’s better to embrace them than to fear them.”
Showgirls! The Musical runs at the Victoria Theatre from August 10 to August 27. Peaches Christ is also slated to make an appearance at Humphry Slocombe on Saturday, August 6, from 1 to 3 p.m., where the ice cream makers have created a special “Peaches and Popcorn” flavor specifically to celebrate the musical’s West Coast premiere. Tickets to the show are available here.