Charles Busch at 54 Below
The inimitable Charles Busch
Who or what is Charles Busch? Although he performs as a woman, he’s not the conventional drag queen. He doesn’t adopt another name, and he always lets you know it’s Charles Busch behind that makeup and under that wig.
He’s definitely not a female impersonator. Gender illusionist? I’ll go with gender performance artist, although this barely scratches the surface of Busch’s comic genius. He’s simply in a class of his own, up there with John Kelly (as Joni Mitchell) and John Epperson (as Lypsinka) as simply the finest whatever-he-is of his generation.
Busch’s talents extend from playwriting to songwriting to performing. All of them were on ample display Dec. 28 and 29 at that gem of a cabaret, 54 Below. My only complaint about this gig is that it was way too brief for all of Busch’s fans, too many of whom were sent away from the door.
The range of Busch’s talent was evident by not only the enthusiasm of the crowd, but its diversity. This was far from the standard gay men and their entourage audiences of drag shows. Much lauded by serious critics (especially in the Times), Busch attracts a cross-section that, yes, includes plenty of gay men, but also in-the-know straight couples on the town.
Some cabaret nights are musical numbers interspersed by reflections and recollections. Busch fits the mold, but his is more of a "meta" cabaret performance: He’s commenting on cabaret at the same time as he’s doing it.
This was nowhere more evident than in the night’s most straightforward number, a lovely little ballad from "Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol," an animated TV special with songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, pre-"Funny Girl." Who knew?
Tom Judson, that’s who. The man who many of those reading this review know and have lusted over as porn star Owen Hawk served as Busch’s accompanist. Yes, this gorgeous specimen of man is a super-accomplished pianist and has a tenor voice that could melt ice. (So who said life was fair?)
Judson gets his big moment, launches into his ballad, and Busch proceeds to sabotage it with the tiniest, most subtle bits of business. The song still works, but it’s a great moment that "comments" on cabaret at the same time as it celebrates it.
The evening was so enjoyable that it went by in a rush, but I can easily pinpoint the highlight: It was when Busch performed the monologue that was apparently the starting-off point for his greatest commercial success, "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife."
One of the stars of this Broadway hit play, Valerie Harper, was in the audience the night I attended. Busch gave her a nice shootout before giving his monologue, a long set piece in which a frustrated cabaret performer who teaches French in a Westchester County high school gets her moment in the sun. Well, more like a setting sun (it’s 4:30 p.m. at the Duplex).
The only lag in the evening occurred with a mash-up of film noir and fairy tales, in this case mostly "Mildred Pierce" and "Cinderella": great concept, so-so execution. But even that was great fun -- below-superlative Busch is still several notches above excellent anyone else.
Aside from the "Allergist’s Wife" monologue, I really got a kick out of Busch’s selected readings from the posthumous writings of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. That was matched, however, by readings from "Always Ask a Man: Arlene Dahl’s Key to Femininity," a 1965 how-to from a va-va-voomy starlet.
If these bits don’t have you on the floor, then it’s only the paucity of my descriptions. If and when New Yorkers are lucky enough to have Busch do another nightclub act, book your table as soon as you hear about it, because it will be guaranteed to sell out.
Charles Busch’s gig at the eponymous 54 Below (it’s literally below Studio 54) was only for two nights in late December.
Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).