The quality that makes Charles Busch a must-see performer is his sense of compassion. Over a diverse, 40-year career, his most important work has always involved putting on a dress and a fancy wig to create what has become a classy menagerie of doomed heroines. While his campy works are dotted with moments of raunch and outright silliness, Busch’s obvious affection and respect for the women he depicts brings legitimacy and a downright beauty to his craft. For all the hilarity his characters conjure, the laughter never comes at their own expense.
The latest example of this workmanship can be found at the Primary Stages mounting of Busch’s 2018 play, The Confession of Lily Dare at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The piece is a mellow, at times moving homage to old-time movie melodramas. In the title role, Busch portrays an unlucky lass doing what she can to survive across five decades, transforming from “an innocent sixteen-year old gamine in a pinafore” to a sultry cabaret singer to a hard-nosed brothel owner to a forlorn death row inmate. Along the way, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, World War One and the Great Depression all have their way with her. But, as with any good tearjerker, it is a mother’s love that has the greatest effect on Lily, raising her up while bringing her down.
As the years and the wigs fly by, Lily grows ever more steely. In forging his creation, Busch combines a little Lotte Lenya, a lotta Marlene Dietrich and maybe a hint of Mae West. There are moments of operatic lip-syncing (this is a drag show after all), but Busch also croons some tunes in his own weathered voice. “Pirate Joe” is a parody of a chanteuse’s lament (“It’s not fun being a siren / To a Sidney or a Myron”), while his rendition of “It’s Only a Shanty in Old Shantytown,” is straightforward and effectively sorrowful. Ultimately, Busch channels his inner, and feminized, Jimmy Cagney, à la Angels with Dirty Faces, facing a murderer’s punishment, as an unhelpful Irish priest counts down Lily’s final minutes.
A powerhouse ensemble of five accompany Busch, ably handling a multitude of supporting characters. An endearing Nancy Anderson portrays Emmy Lou, a good-hearted hooker who has a thing for getting hitched (the “left hand, third finger routine” as she likes to call it). Her sidekick, Mickey, is played with a big heart by Kendal Sparks. Christopher Borg, in a whirl of costumes and accent changes, makes the most of a parade of minor characters. Howard McGillin is debonnaire and devilish as the villain, Blackie Lambert. And Jennifer Van Dyck sparkles first, hilariously, as Lily’s cranky and conniving aunt and later as Louise, the apple of Lily’s eye. Director and long-time Busch collaborator Carl Andress gives his star room to work and finesses the multitude of costume changes (all gorgeous, by Rachel Townsend and Jessica Hahn) with ease. And B.T. Whitehill’s set design is one part vaudeville theater house, two parts explosion at the lingerie factory, an appropriately frilly confessional.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
"You could call this camp heaven, and indeed Lily Dare, a Primary Stages production, offers both the euphoria and the shabbiness that term can suggest."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"A brightly fruity cocktail of wisecracks, hard knocks and cheap sentiment, The Confession of Lily Dare offers (as someone says of Lily’s nightclub act) “entertainment that ranges from the ribald to the exquisite.”"
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Busch’s longtime collaborator Carl Andress directs with cinematic panache and a nice sense of pacing, aided by Rachel Townsend’s striking costumes and B.T. Whitehill’s evocative set."
Thom Geier for The Wrap
"The Confession of Lily Dare fairly begs the question: Why stay home watching old films on Turner Classic Movies when you can see Charles Busch send them up in his gloriously campy, cross-dressing fashion? Returning to the parodistic style with which he made a name for himself in such comedies as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die! (the last two also made into movies), the actor-writer here delivers an amusingly loving send-up of the sort of melodramatic, pre-Code weepies that used to star the likes of Ruth Chatterton, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter