Reviewed by Joe Regan Jr.
Charles Busch, the author and star of such plays as “The Divine Sister,” “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” as well as a Tony nominated playwright for “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” and two time MAC Award winner and recipient of a special Drama Desk Award for career achievement as both performer and playwright, returned to 54 Below with a brand new show on October 17, aided and abetted by his music director and pianist and performer himself Tom Judson. In a bright red wig and dressed in flowing veiled coat and red slacks designed by Andrew Gonzalez, Busch’s opening number was Cole Porter’s “Ridin’ High,” introduced by Ethel Merman. However, it wasn’t just an opening number, interspersed with the melody were comments on doing a new show, seeking a special opening number from Stephen Sondheim (he sent her Ginger Rogers’ opening number which didn’t work for Busch because of its references to “Fred”) and stories about his first exposure to Broadway and how the doorman at the Winter Garden would let him go on stage after the matinee and sing there and what happened when Rogers was actually rehearsing on stage one afternoon!
His idolization of Merman led to a tender “They Say That Falling in Love Is Wonderful” which he saw at her Lincoln Center revival several times. Now, Busch’s husky singing voice is that of a diseuse and his face framed by the red wig and the carefully applied make up is very reminiscent of the most famous diseuse of all time, Marlene Dietrich!
He talks about the famous film noir “Detour” and does a great imitation of that movie’s legendary star, Ann Savage, reciting the dialogue during a wild rendition of “Route 66.” It’s a classic set piece and Busch’s imitation of Savage’s meanness is spot-on.
He talks about another movie star who was discovered, had the face and eyebrows changed, was vocally coached and starred in a Latin American type musical, singing “Frenesi.” The movie was a bomb so they put her in another campy musical and this time she sang “Perdido” and it only played drive-ins. Of course, Busch sings both in English and Spanish and does all the choreographed moves on the 54 Below stage.
Busch tells a wonderful story about Michele Lee (in the audience) and him seeing “The Nance” on Broadway and wanting to go backstage to see Nathan Lane. The usher recognizes Lee and sends a message back stage. It isn’t until they get to see Lane that they learn that the message sent was about another TV star who had been dead for six years!
Busch gives Judson a solo spot. This time he chose “The Song From Raintree County” but during the song Busch is again upstaging him playing with her boa, texting and mugging and the audience is laughing loudly during his great rendition of this song.
He talks about playing Bette Midler’s first album which led him to research the Andrews Sisters. He actually appeared with Maxine Andrews in “Stage Door Canteen.“ His pay-off story is hysterical! It’s about seeing “Lady Sings the Blues” and buying a LP of Billie Holiday’s greatest hits. With Holiday intonation, Busch sings a tender “My Old Flame.” He tells a funny story on himself mistaking someone for Marilyn Bergman in line at a hamburger place in Los Angeles. For years he trashed Bergman until he was doing a show in Florida, when the actual Bergman came backstage and embraced him and he realized that that woman in line was not Marilyn Bergman. Busch and Judson do a great duet on “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life” that is one of the highlights of the act.
There are funny stories again about Busch and Judson’s tours, especially an engagement at a theater that does all his plays with another female impersonator!
Busch movingly sings “Only the Lonely” and then reprises the song she did at the Cabaret Convention, “Those Were The Days” getting the audience to sing-a-long and clap in rhythm.
There’s a long section about his creation of the Long Island matron whose husband has financed her career. She has played all the leads in their community theater musicals but loses out on “Hello Dolly” to a fat young girl! As she sings “Before the Parade Passes By,” we learn telling details about that girl and her husband!
For the encore, Busch and Judson did a wonderful duet on “Close To You.”
Busch really is one of a kind and it’s a show no one should miss!
Charles Busch “Ridin’ High” repeats at 54 Below October 24 at 9:30 PM, November 7 and 14 at 9:30 PM. Reservations are strongly advised.