‘Werq the World’ struts into South Central with top-notch drag talent

Jaida Essence Hall, winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”’s 12th season, opened for the L.A. tour date of the “Werq the World” tour, which took place at the Shrine Auditorium on Friday. (Fitz Cain | Daily Trojan)

Rain in Los Angeles is rare. But this weekend, South Central was drenched in an even more distinctive kind of reign: the rhinestoned, high-heeled domination of drag’s A-listers. “The Werq the World Tour” sashayed into the Shrine Auditorium Friday night, featuring a lineup of nine drag queens from popular reality competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Now sporting 14 regular seasons, seven All Stars seasons and so many international spinoffs that even “Drag Race” superfans like myself find it hard to keep up, the franchise has taken the world by storm and pushed drag further into mainstream public consciousness than ever before.

As its title suggests, “Werq the World” is yet another entry in “Drag Race”’s worldwide domination: the L.A. stop was the 50th of the North American leg, and the 85th since the tour began. The lineup of queens varies by city, and the L.A. show saw a mix of established names and new faces taking center stage.

Jaida Essence Hall — winner of “Drag Race” season 12 and recent contestant on the all-winner season, All Stars 7 — kicked off the show with a high-energy dance performance, then taking on the role of emcee to welcome the crowd and introduce the show.

Essence Hall convincingly explained that the central set piece, a large staircase encircled by glowing lights, was a time machine set to take the audience through history. The queens then took the stage one-by-one, each delivering a lip-sync performance themed around a different time period. Essence Hall served as host for the entire evening, returning between numbers to interact with the crowd and “activate” the time machine.

The queens were not on their own in delivering a show-stopping performance. Supported by an ensemble of six dancers as well as a myriad of lighting and visual effects, queens were able to deliver a high-budget package beyond the scale of even the “Drag Race” mainstage.

A few queens reached for the sky with their performances — suspended by aerial cables, season eight finalist Kim Chi flew above the stage dressed as a tea bag during a Boston-Tea-Party-themed number and season 14 winner Willow Pill rode a swing through a cloud of confetti.

Other standouts included Naomi Smalls’ sultry performance to a medley of FKA twigs songs in pirate garb, season 10 and 11 contestant Vanessa Vanjie Mateo’s lightning-fast choreography set in the Mayan Empire and season 11 winner Yvie Oddly’s wacky prehistoric performance.

Staying true to her “queen of the queerdos” title, Oddly began in a group of dancers all in frilly, bacterial garments before revealing her face dramatically, dancing in her signature gymnastic style and ending the number dressed as a prehistoric rat… dog… creature. Who cares about the taxonomy? Oddly sold it with her wild eyes and toothy grin.

The production stumbled toward the end of the first act, when a technical issue saw season 14 finalist Bosco introduced for a roaring ‘20s number, only for her music to be cut off seconds in. Essence Hall’s disembodied voice then introduced season 14 finalist Daya Betty, moving on from Bosco completely and leaving the audience confused.

Bosco did deliver her performance during the second act, but the awkward hiccup was never acknowledged. To make matters worse, Betty’s 1980s performance that followed the mishap fell flat, exhibiting none of the punk-rock edge that Betty was known for on the show. Instead, Betty opened lip syncing to “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, a song that’s charming at Thursday night dive-bar karaoke, but corny on a stage this extravagant.

The show also featured a “lip sync for your life” segment with audience participation, modeled after the show’s staple elimination challenge. Two audience members were invited onstage to each perform against season 14 finalist Lady Camden. Needless to say Camden is the one who shined, but every “Drag Race” fan fantasizes about facing off in a legendary lip sync, so watching two attendees participate added to the show’s friendly and lighthearted atmosphere.

The show was at its best in moments like this, when it was candid and authentic. Essence Hall was the clear standout of the night, more because of her endearing and playful emceeing than her two solo numbers. None of the other queens on the lineup were given a chance to speak to the crowd, tinging the show with an element of impersonality.

Therein lies a disappointing — if minor — crux of “Werq the World.” “Drag Race” fans come to see the queens they fell in love with on screen for not only their talent, but their personality.

I suppose it can’t be expected that a tour this grand, with this many stops, would stay completely fresh every night with every queen on 110%. But more interaction between the queens or a less repetitive structure that highlighted talents beyond lip syncing would have breathed more life into the show.

The show’s atmosphere was, unsurprisingly, much calmer and less intimate than typical drag performances in clubs and gay bars. Based on a visual survey, the audience seemed to trend older, and the energy in the auditorium was more similar to that of a theater production than a concert. The audience remained seated for the duration of the show, applauding for stunts and at the ends of numbers, but very few attendees were matching the queens’ energy.

The show reached its climax with one final number that brought all the queens back onstage in matching gold outfits. By showcasing the performers as one ensemble, this joyful finale celebrated the community aspect of drag artistry largely absent until this point in the night.

“Werq the World” ultimately delivered on its promise, offering something for “Drag Race” fans, not just drag fans. By spotlighting queens’ talents in an original, cohesive format and giving their fans an opportunity to witness their favorite queens in the flesh, “Werq the World” carries on “Drag Race’s” mission of spreading drag across the globe.