Charles Busch Delivers Hilarious & Heartwarming Ultimate Playlist

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by Matt Smith

 

As the lights dim at Feinstein’s/54 Below, pianist Tom Judson takes the stage and tickles the ivories, preparing to introduce the “legendary” Charles Busch. Borrowing from the late Gertrude Lawrence, he sings, “If the lady’s naughty but proper, if the lady’s chic-er than chic… the chances are the lady’s a star!” And from the moment the lady in question — Busch (who else?) — enters the room, in all his bedazzled glory, you recognize Judson has hit the mark with his assessment.

“Bless you, darlings,” Busch purrs, waving at an unsuspecting guest in the front row. “It’s lovely to be back on the bandstand — at 54 Below… I missed it.” He then, of course, delves into song, kicking off his 12-track Ultimate Playlist with a bang.

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What follows is an eclectic mix of selections offering humor and heart… selections chosen from a variety of previous engagements, compiled together into one, to commemorate both Busch and Judson’s fourth anniversary performing together and their fourth year of regularly entertaining audiences at Feinstein’s/54 Below.

As an act in itself, the retrospective piece — consisting of, as Busch puts it “old material, new material, and somebody else’s material” — is pretty standard, TBH. Though Busch undoubtedly has a gorgeous voice, hitting both high notes and low notes (presumably, he dips into his lower register to poke fun at the fact that he is a man in drag) with aplomb, it’s essentially a performer singing songs on stage, backed by a pianist who’ll occasionally share a duet with him (and I should mention, when Judson does, it’s a win!). Same old, same old, right?

Essentially, yes. But… the genius in Busch’s act lies in the stories he tells in between, which serve to both cap off the previous selection and introduce the next one.

Considering that the songs he sings are obviously (a) not specifically written for Busch, let alone before Busch even became a name in cabaret, and (b) written for their own, individual musicals, and not intentionally to be performed alongside each other in this manner, one might find the task of finding personal stories that organically act as a fitting introduction to be rather daunting. Busch, however, does it effortlessly (Seriously, these stories seem so naturally fitting, it’s scary).

One example: He recalled a point of struggle in his life, flunking out of school, desperate to find an outlet…. until his aunt Lillian urged him to water her garden in an effort to rid the “neurotic self-absorption [by] nurturing something else”… which led into Leslie Bricusse’s “What a Lot of Flowers,” which he sang as though he were reflecting on Aunt Lillian’s African violets. (Could the song be written about anything else?)

Additional anecdotes purport humor — preceding an Elaine Stritch tribute number, he shared a hilarious account of a time he was “accosted” by the late octogenarian — and wisdom — referencing the singer, Helen Morgan, a “terrible alcoholic” who stumbled from the wing to the mic at her last performance, but “was extraordinary once she got there” relays the lesson: “It doesn’t matter how you get there, it’s what you do when you get there” — in equal parts.

Musical highlights throughout the evening included a rousing rendition of “The Road to Morocco,” a stirring medley of Sondheim’s “A Parade in Town” and Noel Coward’s “Sail Away” (which made up the aforementioned Stritch tribute) and my personal favorite, “Bill,” from the musical Showboat (I can’t help it… I’m a sucker!)

Bonus shout-outs go to pianist Judson, whose brilliant instrumentation — and in certain numbers, his voice — acts as the perfect counterpoint to Busch’s soaring vocals. Lighting design was equally fabulous, painting Busch in deep hues of blue, orange, red and purple throughout the evening.

But it’s his poignant offering of “The Rainbow Connection” that seals the deal for me — if only because I could hear the emotion in his voice as he sang… how desperately he wanted to get the song’s message across to the audience: “Someday we’ll find it / the rainbow connection / the lovers, the dreamers and me.” The effort, punctuated by the not-so-subtle final tableau of Busch against a rainbow wash (referencing gay pride), is made all the more chilling considering the horrific events that occurred just hours — literally — after the evening’s performance.

It’s become painfully obvious, given what’s unfolded in the last 72 hours, that we, as a nation, have still yet to grasp the complete meaning of the message in the song. But know that Charles Busch has — and that idea permeates throughout his act, resulting in an evening that’s, simply, enjoyable, elegant and — thanks to moments like that — incredibly moving. For what more could you ask at a time like this?

Charles Busch’s Ultimate Playlist played Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 W. 54th Street, on June 10 & 11. For more information  visit charlesbusch.com and 54below.com.

Photos: Maryann Lopinto

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