Queen of New York
Night club extravaganza offers a juicy bite into the Big Apple's Sensual Core
Early on in Queen of the Night, the theatrical extravaganza currently showing at New York’s Diamond Horseshoe Club, a sparsely clad performer with heavy eyeliner and arms like chiseled alabaster crouches beside my table. He takes my hand, which he caresses and kisses, and then he leans forward. “Tell me,” he whispers in my ear, “do you remember the first time you made love?” It’s not a question I’m often asked, particularly by men resembling Renaissance sculptures in drag, and for a moment I’m tongue-tied. Since arriving at the newly opened club, I’ve mingled politely with the other patrons, I’ve observed the dramatic proportions of the room – the curvature of the stage, the decorative trim on the ceiling and the starry fibre-optic sky – and I’ve marvelled at the elaborate costumes and watched dancers, seemingly bereft of bones or joints, slowly descend from the ceiling on poles.
Thankfully, I’ve also knocked back a green artisanal cocktail from the bubbling distillery of a bar. And so find I am able to supply the androgynous artiste with an answer. He seems vaguely amused. After a moment’s pause he whispers: “Tonight, will be the same kind of magic. We will open up a Pandora’s box of new sensations and emotions.” And then, with a spring of his black tights, he is gone.
Directed by Christine Jones (previous productions include American Idiot and Rigoletto), Queen of the Night combines various theatrical elements into a singular spectacle that entices, titillates and thrills: there are tricks with whips, there is knife throwing, there are acrobatics; men jump through hoops and juggle umbrellas; dancers dangle from suspended horseshoes.
If there is a plot to the performance – the show’s central characters are modelled on Mozart’s Magic Flute – it is fragmented by frequent interludes and interruptions, flurries of activity that erupt everywhere simultaneously, both on stage and off. Queen of the Night includes the kind of interactive and immersive theatrical elements made popular through productions such as Sleep No More, a site-specific performance, loosely based on Macbeth, which first premiered in Manhattan in 2011.
At Queen of the Night, you might be lassoed upon arrival, or assigned a special task that you’re unlikely to ever repeat (say, polishing the butler’s codpiece). You may be strapped inside a rotating celestial globe, or as my companion was, whisked away during the performance into one of the many hidden chambers to partake in a private ceremony. “We wanted to emphasise the unexpected,” says set and scent designer Douglas Little, who collaborated with a host of other creative talents including creative director Giovanna Battaglia, lighting designer Austin Smith and interior designer Meg Sharpe on the show’s elaborate and largely handcrafted set.
From hand-stencilled, hand-distressed wallpaper (referencing the club’s history), to hand-cast, hand-shaped bronze door handles (inspired by the secret Masonic handshake), to 40,000 hand-applied beetle wings (symbolising metamorphosis) – each design detail is imbued with a playful, artisanal quality where the space itself emerges as a chief performer. “You would see this kind of set design in the ’20s and ’30s but you just don’t see it any more,” Little says.
Located in the basement of The Paramount Hotel, a landmark property in Manhattan’s Theater District, the Diamond Horseshoe was first opened in 1938 by Billy Rose, a songwriter and theatrical impresario from the vaudeville era. The venue closed in 1951 and remained largely unused until real estate mogul and art collector Aby Rosen purchased the property in 2011 and partnered with Variety Worldwide for a limited run of Queen of The Night.
When Stonehill & Taylor architects took over the restoration, the space was largely dilapidated. However, the architects studied the work of the initial architect, Thomas Lamb, and took inspiration from his original design for the club’s centre ceiling ellipse, the classical side arches and frieze. They also worked to preserve those elements that could be salvaged, such as the original stairwell at the club entrance.
Little and his team then cleverly incorporated this sense of decay into the arrival experience. Guests enter from the noise and bustle of West 46th Street and are greeted by sheets of billowing plastic, exposed concrete, bare light bulbs. But as they descend the spiralling staircase, the space becomes increasingly accessorised: a tower of dusty champagne flutes is the first hint of decadence; fragments of wallpaper bind together to form an elaborate design, a giant broken chandelier rests at the bottom of the stairs evoking a sense of parties past.
This is also the point at which guests might notice a nude woman standing behind a bronze and glass encasement and writing backwards on the glass. The words, Little explains, are taken from love poems between D’Annunzio and Marquis de Sade – another inspirational figure for Queen of the Night. “Spaces that involve sensuality are something we’re really missing in America,” says Little, who was educated in the US and France and often works with European artisans. “But we have enough sensory elements here that allow you to lose your inhibitions.”
Other appetites are also aroused. The food served during Queen of the Night – conceived by Jennifer Rubel – is its own spectacle. Roasted pigs are served still on the spit; lobsters gleam from inside bronze cages. Carafes of wine are liberally replenished and dessert is spoon-fed to audience members during the final dance floor denouement.
I don’t see my dancer again until just before the show’s end when, after a particularly acrobatic number, he bounces back to my seat and, squatting down, presses my hand firmly against his chest. I can feel his heart racing, thumping wildly against his ribs. He stares at me with an intense, unwavering gaze. But this time, we seem to agree, words are not needed.
This story appeared in the May 2014 issue of The Peak Hong Kong