Charles Busch at 54 Below
Charles Busch's new cabaret show, at 54 Below, is first and foremost a smorgasbord of his many talents. This is appropriate, since those who know Busch without quite being his fans think of him as one of the classic drag queens, exuding class and sequins, impersonating old movie divas, and never condescending to lip synch. Of this genre, Busch may be one of the best. But he is also a man of many faces, voices, styles, titles (actor, writer, director, comedian, songstress) and mediums (theatre, film, cabaret).
As we learn from his show, he is even a trained visual artist, a skill that once allowed him to make a living drawing "psychic portraits" of customers' previous lives. Busch's story, in short, is of a misfit who chose craft over compromise. On stage he and his audience are allowed to revel in the fruits of his labor.
He begins the evening, brazenly, with "And I Am Telling You..." before stopping in disgust: "That's not for me." From there, his actual set begins with "I Need an Opening Number," a noncommital pastiche that allows him to jump briskly from Sondheim to Bacharach and back, setting the tone for the rest of the evening.
Busch is a regal performer. He keeps his shoulders erect, his neck high, and his face always addressing his fans. His outfit is simple: his trademark red wig, a black jumper for comfort and ease of movement, and a translucent floral top that drapes almost to his heeled toes. His neutral face is a plastered smile, but he's unafraid to let tenderness, anger, and a surprisingly deep fragility break the veneer. It's skill and warmth, not shock and awe, that win over Busch's audience.
Though Busch is a capable singer -- what he lacks in vocal richness he makes up in expressive dexterity -- the show's sequences are not just musical. He tells a comic tale about working with the decrepit Milton Berle before taking out a binder to read spliced-together sound bytes from Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Exaggerating each legend's voice, he makes a riotous spectacle of their infamous feud.
After keeping the crowd laughing for well on twenty minutes, he suddenly announces he'll sing a song by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Launching into "Whatever Happened to Me," he chills the room in a blink, wringing wrenching poignancy where there once were bawdy stories.
Tom Judson, Busch's accompanist and musical director, is straight man to the headliner's scene-chewing postures, and he is more than well deployed in the proceedings. Built and butch, with a military cut, Judson is light and gentle on the piano. He also sings well without upstaging the star. They duet twice, on Weill and Gershwin's "The Saga of Jenny" and Michel Legrand's "I Will Wait For You." The former is sexy and silly, less about being neurotic than about enjoying a life of willful missteps. The latter is simple and sweet. But Judson and Busch's best collaboration comes when Busch deigns to allow Judson a "Someone to Watch Over Me" -- only to stand next to him, preening, fidgeting, checking his phone, and distracting the audience while pretending to maintain focus. It's a comedic coup only a playwright could cook up.
The other uproarious moment of the evening comes when Busch reads from his "diary" a harrowing tale of a trip to Rite Aid in which the store had been remodeled and the female staff was uncharacteristically helpful. "What's...going... on??" he howls with a terrified stare. As attuned to the comedic opportunities of daily life as he is to the golden age of Hollywood, Busch proves he's as virtuosic a wordsmith as he is an impersonator.
The evening concludes with a tender medley of Oscar Hammerstein tunes, Kern's "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" and Rodgers's "Hello, Young Lovers," and a very funny reappearance of his classic character, middle-aged and middling cabaret fixture Miriam Passman. Staging Passman's self-aggrandizing show is not only funny, it reminds us of the delicate line between calling undue attention to yourself and having a crowd in your hand. Busch's one-of-a-kind art is so well refined, he makes us forget how difficult it actually is.
Charles Busch plays through July 12 at 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street. For information and tickets, call 646-476-3551 or visit www.54Below.com.