Charles Busch’s Lily Dare Camps It Up From Convent to Cabaret and Beyond

Howard McGillin, Charles Busch

 

By Marilyn Lester

 

Fans of Charles Busch and his devotion to the campy will not be disappointed in his latest outing, The Confession of Lily Dare, another paean to the drama queens of the 1930s silver screen. Mildred Pierce, Harriet Craig, Stella Dallas, Margo Channing––move over. Lily Dale with her trademark Busch mannerisms: the quivering lips, double-take looks and dramatic gestures, wisecracks her way from innocent convent girl to convicted murderess on death row. In between there’s melodrama galore, and a bunch of fun wigs to boot. Fun is the operative word for this production, written by and starring Busch, even though it’s not as cutting a parody as his previous works, such as the breakthrough Vampire Lesbians of Sodom or Die, Mommie, Die! And while the show runs long (especially the first act) and can use some tightening and editing, The Confession of Lily Dare is still an enjoyable and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours in theater. There’s no doubt that Busch loves what he does and infuses his work with a reverence and affection that translates to rapt audiences.

 

Kendall Sparks, Nancy Anderson

 

The action begins with two longtime and loyal friends of the now deceased Lily at her graveside. These two are Emmy Lou, a hooker employed by Lily’s aunt, played with bright 1930s-style optimism by Nancy Anderson; and bordello and saloon pianist Mickey, played by Kendal Sparks with trustful sincerity. Their narrative sets the stage for Lily’s epic story, her adventure beginning as an orphaned 16-year-old convent-educated schoolgirl. She has nowhere to go but to her aunt, a bordello madam in San Francisco. Then the earthquake strikes and Lily is off on her journey, one that brings her a baby, fame, fortune, loss of fortune and prison. Throughout she’s a game, tough broad, her soft spot and one driving motivation is the baby, called Louise, that she had to give up––to a prominent San Francisco family as Fate would have it. As Louise rises to fame as a world-renowned opera star, Lily tracks her girl’s success with the devotion that only a melodramatic mother could. After a truly moving ending, the last scene is a bookend of the opener, with Emmy Lou and Mickey making their conclusive statements about the amazing decades-long journey of Lily, with all of its remarkable twists and turns.

 

Jennifer Van Dyck, Christopher Borg, Charles Busch

 

Now 65, and perhaps growing somewhat long in the tooth for the glamor roles he’s created in his 45-year career, Lily is a leading lady more tamped down in this production than in previous Busch performances. She’s still the main attraction, but it’s the supporting cast that shines most brightly and gives vim and vigor to the piece. Howard McGillin, handsome, suave and sophisticated, is the quintessential Black Sheep of a wealthy family. As Blackie Lambert he plays the charming rat perfectly. Christopher Borg in a plethora of roles––Louis, The Baron, Dr. Carlton, Maestro Guardi and the Priest––differentiates them all with a fierce commitment to characterization. The remarkable Jennifer Van Dyck is a wonder in her various roles––Aunt Rosalie, The Baroness, Mrs. Carlton and the adult Louise––bringing the house down each time she sets foot on stage.

 

(L-R) Kendall Sparks, Charles Busch, Christopher Borg, Nancy Anderson, Howard McGillin

 

The Confession of Lily Dare was directed by longtime Bush colleague Carl Andress whose pacing wasn’t sufficient to keep the piece moving along at the fast clip it needed. Busch’s delightfully glamorous and over-the-top costumes and wigs were thoughtfully designed by Jessica Jahn and Katherine Carr, respectively. Superb costumes for the rest of the cast were designed by Rachel Townsend. Set design by B.T. Whitehill was incomprehensible. An overly busy set of panels and scenic elements in shades of purple, with bizarre designs, added nothing to the proceedings on stage and often detracted from them. Kirk Bookman designed lighting and Bart Fasbender designed sound. Musical arrangement were by Tom Judson. Judson also composed an original song, sung by Busch, “Pirate Joe,” a delicious riff on Kurt Weill that added punch to Lily’s life phase as a cabaret performer.

Photos: Carol Rosegg

The Confession of Lily Dare, produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre (35 Commerce St., NYC), runs two hours with an intermission and plays through Thursday, March 5. www.primarystages.org 

 

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