Just as I make it to my seat, the stagelights flare up. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," announces a husky male voice in pristine Queen's English. "Tonight we present for you, the most beautiful ladies in all of Thailand..." A bold claim in a land renowned for its strikingly exotic women, I think to myself while getting acquainted with my complementary beer. This is going to be interesting.
And then there, knocking me out with her gaze and flawless features, is Orn - the first of many gender-straddling stunners to appear in the Asia Hotel's world famous Calypso Cabaret show. Midway through a sip, I nearly choke on her surreal beauty.
All the world's a stage...
Ladyboys, or 'katoeys' as they are known in Thailand, are a strange, rarely understood breed. With their overt gestures, extravagant clothing and often impetuous behaviour, they typically inspire fascination and revulsion in equal measure. For me personally, it was always admiration tinged with a smidgen of fear. I've seen them cat-walking the streets, marveled at the inner-strength - not to mention surgery - it must take to strut with such womanly poise. On the other hand, I've watched them in bars, baying aggressively at any man they take a shining to. Seeing them perform like this on the city's stage - Bangkok's streets - was enough. "Why bother with the crass spectacle of a ladyboy show?," I thought.
But as the curvy, statuesque Orn opens the show with a solemn 1940s solo number - while sporting her own tight little number - something in me switches. Cynicism fades into a dream-like state. The hypnotized crowd is putty in her ever-so-slightly manly hands. Or rather, I am. Though her miming is a tad off in parts, Orn too is having a ball, clearly relishing the spotlight. While her beauty may be artificially achieved, she's clearly a natural performer, not a freak-show. Unlike in the real world where, even in tolerant Thailand, many ladyboys encounter hardship and prejudice on a daily basis, up on stage she's a woman in control of her destiny, with dignity.
A celebration of divine divas
And it gets better. When she leaves, the show commences a breathless romp through different aspect of the female persona. No womanly trait is left untouched in pursuit of the crowd's enjoyment. Giving proceedings a delicious dose of camp are all the ingredients you'd find in the local pantomime back home: garish sets, liberal helpings of dry-ice, opulent costumes and liberal pinches of slapstick. But Cinderella this is not. And there's certainly no sign of the ugly sisters.
A sparkling pink number showcasing feathers, flawless show-girls and silky-smooth legs drifts seamlessly into a tacky, 1970s B-movie of a story about a jilted bride. Leading us to its inevitably tragic dénouement is a China-doll femme fatale with an unspeakably angelic face.
She slinks across the stage, becoming more murderous with every graceful step. Shedding her pure white bridal gown as if a skin, she reveals lethal intentions and an ample bossom. The music is menacing. Blood is spilt. Hell hath no fury like a ladyboy scorned seems to be the fearful message.
Simply the best!
Next up a comedy skit finds famous Portuguese-Brazilian 1940s starlet Carmen Miranda - played by an overtly camp man - parading around on puppet ostriches. The kid next to me is in belly-hugging stitches. A joyous storm of steps and beats then heralds in a pop medley extravaganza. Not one but three radiant Marilyn Monroe's blow their skirts, and a trio of the sassiest of modern women, Tina Turner, commandeers the stage while cheering 'Simply the Best!'
By now its clear - this show is a glittering, all-out celebration of the sheer fabulousness of the fairer sex. And some of the most iconic strong, inspiring women of the last century have come along for the party. Very fitting it all is too - surely the fiercely independent, unashamedly sexy ladyboy is right up there with say Madonna, the Spice Girls or Beyonce, and a worthy spiritual ambassador for Girl Power? It doesn't stop there...
A frenzied five-song medley in tribute to the legendary American-French dancer and singer, Josephine Baker, kicks up a storm. Probably similar to the one the great lady herself did way back in 1920s Paris. Husky gals jive away to bebop in banana skirts, and the crowd goes wild. More high-pitched squeals of delight rise from the kid next to me.
A comic skit then toys with the coy mannerisms of the meek, but devastatingly alluring Geisha girl. And my heart melts as three towering Thai goddesses emerge from an ancient, mist shrouded temple to give the graceful gestures of Khon, Thai classical dance, a modern Calypso twist.
Something for the whole family
Contrasting with these spell-binding Far Eastern enigmas, are musical extravaganzas reminiscent of the Broadway show. Things go all cabaret on us with a rip-roaring stage filler set to Chicago's 'All that Jazz', and a stomping flamenco workout has dashing Don Juan's beating guitars, while a tale of gang-warfare inspired by love and jealousy plays out.
And for the knock me dead finale it's all big hands on stage. The entire cast of showgirls, silk-gowned divas and glittering Fred Astaire's stomp, strut, wink and pout for a fitting send off that firmly seals our adulation.
The energy and gusto of these enticing, polished performances confirm it - ladyboys love a stage. However, unlike Bangkok's sometimes unforgiving streets, here at Calypso the stage loves them back. Come and so will you. Woman will beam throughout with sisterly pride. Children will laugh uncontrollably like my little friend this evening. And men will leave as I did – dribbling and asking themselves a few deep and meaningfuls.