Tommy Strangie has played the drag character Shelley Novak at South Beach bars for decades. Now he’s performing karaoke songs from his kitchen, singing into a can of baked beans.
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After the coronavirus pandemic forced bars to close and Miamians to stay home, local karaoke nights have found a new home: Instagram live. Strangie is one of hundreds of people from around the country who’ve tuned into the virtual karaoke events looking for some connection and catharsis.
“It’s a great way to get your ya yas out,” Strangie said, “a great way … to get that cathartic joy out of your system or that sadness or that anger or whatever you've got, and you’re holding it inside.”
Local hosts are putting on two online karaoke events on Monday nights. Drag queen Karla Croqueta, played by Josue Garcia, is hosting Karaoke Quarantina at 8 p.m. Let’s Sang, a weekly party that was previously held at the Wynwood bar Gramps, goes live at 9 p.m.
Dressed as the “chonga” character Karla Croqueta, Garcia is also hosting drag shows and drag brunches from his home.
“I feel like it's my responsibility as an entertainer to … keep that sense of community alive,” said Garcia, a Hialeah native.
Virtual karaoke participants sign up by choosing their songs through the app Karafun or by sending YouTube links, and when it’s their turn, the singers split the Instagram live screen with the hosts. One half of the screen shows the lyrics, and the other half, the performer.
And since participants are performing from home, they’re donning pajamas, replacing microphones with hairbrushes and wooden spoons and featuring their pets as backup dancers. One singer, Nadina Bennazar, belted out Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” in a kimono while her boyfriend lifted their grey cat, Whiskey Jose Bennazar, into the frame.
Both hosts are accepting tips via payment apps like Venmo.
The events have attracted audiences who might not be able to make it to a karaoke night at a Miami bar, including people joining from New York and Philadelphia.
Viewers cheered on an 11-year-old boy as he reached for the high notes in “Giants in the Sky” from the musical "Into the Woods."
For fifth grader Sam Kaplan, virtual karaoke fills a specific void. He had been cast as the lead, Charlie Bucket, in “Willie Wonka Jr.” at Miami Childrens Theater, but the show was postponed. He said he wanted an outlet to keep singing.
“I haven't seen all my theater friends. Well, I do FaceTime with them, but I haven't really seen them,” he said. “And singing with other people — it's just a happy place for me.”
Jennifer Suarez of Miami Lakes said virtual karaoke helps her maintain a piece of her normal routine. Before the pandemic, she was a karaoke regular at South Florida bars.
“It's important, I think, to do things that kind of keep your day to day similar to what it used to be,” she said, “especially something that brings you joy.”
UPDATED: This story was updated with new information at 3:49 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8.