Witchy Woman: Penny Champayne Casts An Autumnal Spell At Showgirls

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by Steve Desroches

The splashes of color and inclusion that are the flags the crisscross Commercial Street are still flapping in the late summer breeze, and there’s still a sparkle from the glitter that coats the asphalt Carnival Parade day, but it’s fading. Celebrations can often go beyond just tradition in Provincetown, a town that is anchored to the seasons and the changes they bring in a more significant way than perhaps many locales around the world. And the Parade Day of Carnival Week is akin to a Provincetown New Year of sorts in that locals know the town will not be that crowded again until the parade the following year. Come the day after, it’s as if you can hear the beginning of a gentle sigh that, after Labor Day, is a full-on exhale as Provincetown enters the golden season, sometimes called Townie Summer.

The air is crisp and clear, the light golden as if the Outer Cape was drizzled in honey, and the pace is slower. Augustitis, that condition that can cause agitation and exhaustion from living in a tiny town that welcomes tens of thousands every day in the summer, gives way to rest and gratitude as the town returns to its normal state. And in a town that attaches itself to various markers and events to mark the passage of time drag queen Penny Champayne (portrayed by Scott Martino) has become a harbinger of autumn when she presents her annual performance of Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide” with the audience all holding lit candles at the final Showgirls of the year.

“It’s my time to reflect,” says Martino. “You say goodbye to friends you’ve been in the trenches with and you don’t know if you’ll ever see them again. They might not come back. It’s like blowing on a dandelion. People scatter. I find it my most reflective period. It’s a cleansing of energy. After being so busy you finally get this chance to relax and open your mind to new things. It’s a mixed bag. It a beautiful time and a bit melancholy, too.”

The number, which has now become a ritual, began about 15 years ago. Years before that Martino’s husband Ryan Landry, founder and host of Showgirls and driving force behind the theater troupe the Gold Dust Orphans, performed the 1975 Fleetwood Mac song written by Nicks at Kook, a weekly party in town in the 1990s and 2000s. Martino laughs when he recalls telling Landry that the song was now going to be his. He’d grown up with a steady Nicks soundtrack as his father was and continues to be a huge fan. Plus the song captured perfectly how Martino felt every September, a month that in Provincetown is an enormous transition that is accompanied with expected self-examination about whether summer was lived to its fullest and how to fill the time the off-season provides with artistry, imagination and creativity of one’s own pursuit. Lyrics like “Oh, mirror in the sky, What is love?, Can the child within my heart rise above?, Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? ,Can I handle the seasons of my life?” sound more like a wonderful spell than a song to Martino, perfect for the upcoming equinox.

As a child he was interested in dragons and castles. The mystique of Nicks, who, with songs like “Rhiannon,” embraced the title of “witch” with all the positive, feminine power the word really encapsulated before misogyny and The Wizard of Oz changed it. And for years now audiences willingly are enchanted when Penny Champayne conjures the sweet, sweet energy of autumn in Provincetown. Martino gets emotional when he thinks about year after year looking out from the stage at the candle-lit faces of friends holding hands and hugging, singing along, some with tears in their eyes, too. The vibe in the room is the essence of Provincetown, the one that can get buried in double shifts and overwhelming crowds. People return to the love of community.

“That’s what I want people to do,” says Martino. “Connect with people you love. It’s very sweet. Very kind. Take time to reflect on what’s important and the passing of time.”

This tender and mystical rite is a moment of reverence in an otherwise wonderfully wild affair. The last Showgirls of the season takes on an awards ceremony veneer and is known as the Showgirl of the Year Awards, in which, in between performances, trophies are given out to winners of outrageous and dubiously named honors. Past categories have included “Most Unstoppable Bottom”, “Showgirl Most Likely to Cause a Syphilis Outbreak”, and “Showgirl Most Likely to Blow Up the World.” But of course the culmination of the evening is the crowning of Showgirl of the Year, that performer who made the biggest impact over the past summer. It is however Penny Champayne who leaves the audience under her spell each year. Even in 2020, when Provincetown’s magic felt as if it were trapped in an evil queen’s dungeon, Martino performed “Landslide” on the steps of the Provincetown Public Library, in front of a small, socially distanced and masked crowd. Martino did check in with officials at Town Hall before going ahead with the show and was happy to hear the Coven of Stevie Nicks has many devotees in Provincetown.

“She said, ‘Oh, I know what you’re talking about,’” says Martino. “And then she said, ‘You really aren’t supposed to and the cops may come, but you’ll be done by then. Anyway, I’ll be there.’ That’s old Provincetown right there.”

The Annual Showgirl of the Year Awards, the final Showgirls of the season, is on Monday, September 12 at 9 p.m. at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St. For tickets ($50/$100, with $30 tickets released day of show) go to the box office or visit onlyatthecrown.com. For more information call 508.487.1430. Candles are provided for Penny Champayne’s performance.