Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Nina West with Seth Rudetsky
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent review of Peter and the Starcatcher

Nina West
Photo courtesy of Nina West /
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
This past Saturday, Nina West, the charismatic and larger-than-life drag queen persona created by Andrew Levitt who toured the United States for two years as Edna in the recent 20th anniversary tour of Hairspray, brought her unique brand of entertainment to Scottsdale. West's concert was part of the Seth Rudetsky concert series at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, which featured Rudetsky accompanying West on the piano and asking a series of questions about her career and her past between songs in an informal, and often hilarious, interview format.

Unlike other past performers in this series, West hasn't appeared in any Broadway shows, but she is well known from her appearance as a competitor in the reality TV show "Rupaul's Drag Race" and her stint headlining the Hairspray national tour. The evening focused on her past, including her experience on "Drag Race," a show that took nine audition submissions for her to be cast, and which catapulted her to meeting several of her icons and getting the attention of director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who cast her in Hairspray.

Rudetsky is known for his witty banter and he was matched by West's signature blend of comedy and camp. The quick wit and irreverent humor that both exhibited kept the audience laughing and entirely entertained throughout the night. While the humor was in abundance, there was also serious talk about growing up as a gay man in small-town Ohio and how Levitt did not tell his parents he was doing drag for many years.

Throughout the evening, Nina commanded the audience's attention with her infectious energy, witty humor, warm singing voice, and her down to earth sensibility. Songs that she performed during the concert included "When You're Good to Mama" from Chicago, in which she exhibited her expert comic timing, ensuring that every witty lyric landed perfectly, and a sensitive, tender and charming "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop of Horrors.

West spoke about how the songwriting duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were beloved, ever since Little Shop and their early Disney animated-film scores. West sang a song they wrote, "Sheridan Square," during a pride special she hosted on Disney+, "Say it with Pride." Ashman died of AIDS and the song is about the loss of the gay community to the disease. She said she discovered the song by scrolling through YouTube videos and falling down a Howard Ashman rabbit hole where she discovered a demo recording of Ashman singing it. West spoke to Menken about performing the song together for the Disney special and Menken said he also sings the song in his concerts. Menken invited West to his home where the song was recorded for the special. The performance of the song during the Scottsdale concert was filled with emotion, with every lyric resonating with meaning.

When Rudetsky asked what it was like meeting Menken, and if she dressed up like a Disney princess to meet him, she joked that out of drag she does conveniently look like Ursula from The Little Mermaid, but that she's also a nervous person because she just wants everyone to have a good time, and when Menken was so calm it made her even more nervous. She also got to sing "The Rainbow Connection" with Kermit the Frog on another Disney+ pride special, "This is Me," and her delivery of that number for this concert was sweet and pure.

West talked about meeting Melissa McCarthy, who played Ursula in the live action film of The Little Mermaid (McCarthy was kind and genuine, she added), and her performance of "Poor Unfortunate Souls" from that score was deliciously evil. West's last stop on the Hairspray tour was here in the Phoenix area and she said the audiences here and across the country were wonderful. West said when she first booked the show many people asked her if she was going to do the same voice that Harvey Fierstein did when he originated the role on Broadway. A very fun medley of songs followed with West portraying Harvey's gravely voice as Fantine in Les Misérables, Elphaba singing "Defying Gravity" from Wicked, and even as Cher on her big hit "Believe," as a duet with Harvey and Cher. A bright version of Hamilton's "I'll Be Back" showed that out of drag, Levitt would be great in that role.

West spoke about (Levitt) growing up in Ohio and seeing shows in Cleveland, including touring shows. There were drag shows in college every year on the last night of school before finals, and Levitt decided to try it one time ("look at me now!"). After starting out by lip synching to Linda Eder songs, Levitt gradually moved into singing in a drag persona, first with the drag name Jocelyn Butane who had the tag line, "because she's gonna set the stage on fire!"

Levitt comes from a conservative family and he would shower at his friend's house and change out of drag before going home. He didn't tell his parents he was doing drag for 10 years. He said his mother did his laundry when he was living at home after college and she found one of his bras in the laundry. He claimed it was his best friend's and she bought it. Another time his makeup person shaved his eyebrows off and when his father asked what happened, he said "I lost a drinking bet." But now they are two of Nina's biggest fans and will call and say things like, "I have this great idea for a drag number. Just let me turn off Fox News," which got a big laugh from the audience.

An impromptu question and answer segment toward the end of the show found an audience member asking West for her advice for someone wanting to get into drag. She commented that drag is really tough, so "don't give up on yourself, believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you." She added that drag offers the opportunity to tell stories. "There is a wonderful rich history in drag. Queer men who were told they can't be loud but can go into spaces and be fabulous and celebrate who we are with each other. There are also so many people who don't want to see you succeed. Whatever you want to do in life you need to have a good support system surrounding you."

The concert ended with a fun and charming rendition of "Timeless to Me" from Hairspray, which offered West and Rudetsky the ability to sing a duet. A gorgeous encore of "Bring on the Men" from Jekyll and Hyde followed with West coming out into the audience and hitting some impressive high notes.

While the comedy and singing were highlights of the concert, West showed that you don't have to be a Broadway star or a Tony winner, like many of the past individuals in this concert series are, to put on a highly entertaining show. Rudetsky also proved, once again, that he's a keen interviewer who asks pertinent questions with the ability to coax out in-depth responses and thought-provoking responses. Whether she was sharing heartfelt stories engaging in playful banter with Seth and the audience, what was always apparent throughout the evening was West's genuine, authentic, and down to earth persona and her clear connection with the audience.

Nina West with Seth Rudetsky performed at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on February 11, 2024. Information for upcoming concerts at the SCPA can be found at