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Drag Impresario Charles Busch Dolls Up For 'The Tribute Artist': INTERVIEW

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The preeminent queen of drag theatre, Charles Busch returns to the New York stage this week with his new comedy The Tribute Artist, in which he plays a female impersonator taking on the role of a lifetime—that of a dear, deceased friend. Opening Off Broadway on Sunday, February 9th at Primary Stages, it’s the latest in the playwright’s lineup of comedic plays in which he also performs a role in drag.

Charles Busch NEWEST headshot 1.20.14For thirty years Busch has been known for his distinct brand of high camp style and the easy charisma with which he embodies female characters, many inspired by legendary Hollywood stars. In his latest, Busch plays Jimmy, a down on his luck Vegas ‘celebrity tribute artist,’ whose glamorous old friend dies in her sleep leaving no will behind. Jimmy hatches a plan to impersonate his late friend in order to hang on to her West Village townhouse.

I spoke to Charles about his work on the new show, the future of drag, and why not every gay man needs to love Judy Garland.

Naveen Kumar: Can you tell me a bit about where you got the idea for this play?

Charles Busch: Over the years I’ve been writing two kinds of plays: one the sort of drag, camp, movie parody play and the other a more traditional New York comedy like The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. I thought it’d be interesting to try to find a middle ground between the two, so I was in search of a story that would be camp and sort of real at the same time.

Of course, living in New York City, I’m surrounded by friends who are in desperate straits trying to find a place to live in Manhattan. It’s just this terrible catch-22 with all sorts of rules and regulations. So, the real estate dilemma put it all together.

Cynthia Harris, Charles Busch339Also, I had never done a story where I was posing as a woman. I’ve made a career out of playing female characters, but I’ve never actually done a show where I was a man posing as a woman. I thought that would be a fun twist, and wanted to see what I could bring to it that was fresh.

It’s a centuries old theatrical convention. All the popular movies—Tootsie, Some Like It Hot, Mrs. Doubtfire—are really about a resolutely heterosexual man forced into playing a female part, which he’s never done before. The comedy comes from his struggle to be feminine and the big difference between men and women. The sort of sexy part of the story is when another straight man is attracted to the straight guy in drag, and there’s a certain amount of homosexual panic.

I’ve been discovering that the interesting part of this play for me, particularly as an actor, is that there’s so little difference between my character and the impersonation he’s doing. His sexuality is so androgynous that he’s able to slip into the female role very effortlessly, and we take it from there.

Read more, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Looking Back At Broadway Bares...And Looking Ahead


Broadway hasn't turned its back on the continuing AIDS crisis. Photo by Jeff Smith

Broadway Bares is a 20-year tradition here in New York, one that's raked in over $7.5 million to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. This year alone the one-night-only spectacle—made up of Broadway's best dancers and a few of its favorite stars sizzling through burlesque numbers that leave many of them an errant sneeze away from nudity—broke its own record, collecting $1,015,985 for the charity. I went and reported on it extensively here.

28219b The brainchild of famed choreographer Jerry Mitchell, Broadway Bares has expanded to include pieces by 15 choreographers and over 200 performers. If you've never been, it's an epic production, one put together quickly but with as much passion as a musical with millions of dollars invested toward its success. Dancer Reed Kelly (pictured, photo by Tristan Fuge), known to many as Clay Aiken's boyfriend, was this year's top earner, raising over $40,000 in donations. "It was truly an honor to be a part of such a wonderful experience," he told me. "I am humbled." This is the attitude I encountered from all the lead dancers I approached—despite the grueling rehearsal schedule for no pay, Broadway Bares obviously offers a sense of community, both among the performers and the audience.

"Each year Bares is better than the last," Mitchell told me. "I truly believe that's because we have a crowd that wants us to succeed."


Carroll's take on The Situation—better-looking, better abs, will dance for money.

Broadway Bares XX: Strip-Opoly, held June 20 at the Roseland, parodied every capitalist's favorite board game, Monopoly, featuring take-offs on its familiar game pieces (and there were plenty of pieces at the Roseland that night) and properties. One of the most memorable was "Boardwalk," featuring John Carroll as Jersey Shore's The Situation opposite Jennifer Cody as Snooki. Carroll, in the show for a second year, confirms that everyone involved is doing more than just showing up and stripping down.

"Though the show is in June, the creative team starts their process in November. Once the theme is chosen, the director and the choreographers come up with different ideas to fit the overall theme. Lorin Latarro choreographed my 'Boardwalk' number and definitely brought her 'A' game," he says. "I have to admit, when I first heard I was going to be The Situation, I didn't know what to expect. It sure wasn't a stand-and-model number."

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On the Stage: Becky Shaw and The Third Story



Kevin Sessums recently reviewed 'Pal Joey' and 'Hedda Gabbler' as well as 'Billy Elliot', 'Shrek', '13', and 'Prayer for My Enemy' for Towleroad. You can also catch up with Kevin online at his own blog at

Annie-Parisse-and-David-Wil In my review of Hedda Gabbler last week, I mentioned the great late 19th/ early 20th Century actress Minnie Maddern Fiske. Mrs. Fiske’s most famous title role, however, was that of Becky Sharp back in 1899, a play she revived in 1904 and 1911 — and a role for which Miriam Hopkins received an Oscar nomination in 1936. A bit more trivia: Billie Burke — many most fondly recall her as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz or as the wife of Flo Ziegfeld or, as I do, the harried hostess Millicent Jordon in George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight — played Lady Bareacres in that same Hopkins movie based on Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

Parisse Such trivial thoughts went through my own harried mind during the early longueurs of Becky Shaw, the new comedy at Second Stage that purposefully recalls that earlier Becky who cunningly made her way up through British society of the early 19th century. This Becky (Annie Parisse) — who doesn’t turn up in this play until half way through it — is just as cunning but much more passive/aggressive, as befits the 21st Century. (Myrna Loy starred as Becky Sharp in her own updating of the novel to the 20th Century in a 1932 movie that borrowed the title of the novel — and, yes, I’m choosing to ignore Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick-like take on the part.) Two other characters in Becky Shaw possess this same passive/aggressive trait - Suzanna (Emily Bergl) and her feminist husband Andrew (now played by Daniel Eaves), who fix up Becky on a blind date with Suzanna’s adoptive brother Max (David Wilson Barnes).

The unflinchingly unsentimental Max and Susanna’s mother, the acerbic Susan who gallantly copes with a case of multiple sclerosis (Kelly Bishop) are anything but passive/aggressive. At first these two — Max and Susan — seem the villains in the piece and yet by the end it is their gimlet-eyed take on romance and life itself that endears us to them as the other three characters are bleary eyed from gazing at their own navels. All the characters share a lacerating neediness but it is Max and Susan who take that neediness and fashion an outward toughness that masks the only true tenderness to be found in this comedy that can be downright mean when reaching for its punchlines — which is not to say I did not laugh a lot and out loud.

Barnes David Wilson Barnes almost steals the show as Max. He plays the part as if he is the long-lost son of Kevin Spacey and Vince Vaughn. There is a glibness he is able to call forth that seems to be fomented by equal parts anger and anguish. I say almost steals the show because it is Kelly Bishop — the original Sheila in A Chorus Line — who walks stiffly away with it in her two fiendishly funny scenes that begin and end the play.

One of the problems, however, seems to be that the playwright Gina Gionfriddo, took the other part of Thackeray’s title — A Novel Without A Hero — too literally. There is no one finally to root for in this comedy of bad manners, directed by Peter DuBois. The text keeps changing focus. The audience, like the characters themselves, seems a bit lost at the end of the evening.

T T 1/2 (out of 4 possible T's)

Becky Shaw, 2econd Stage Theatre, 307 w. 43rd Street, New York. Ticket information here (closes March 15th.


I’d love to see the great Charles Busch adapt or update Vanity Fair and play either Becky Sharp or Lady Bareacres. It might be a bit more entertaining than watching his labored efforts at portraying his latest creations — Queenie Bartlett, an Ida-Lupino-like B-movie gangstress and Baba Yaga, a crone-like witch in the grimmest of fairy tales — in his play, The Third Story, which was originally produced at the La Jolla Playhouse and is now having its New York premiere at MCC Theater’s outpost at the Lucille Lortel on Christopher Street.

Continued, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Via our theatre reviewer Kevin Sessums comes this bit of fun:

Charles Busch, Whoopi Goldberg, and Lypsinka are going to be performing a staged reading of James Kirkwood's infamous play Legends about two arch-rival has-beens who are forced to collaborate on a project in order to revive their careers.

The first two productions of this show never made it to New York. The first, staged in 1986 and starring Carol Channing and Mary Martin, closed on the road before making it to Broadway. The second, starring Joan Collins and Linda Evans, did a pre-Broadway national tour but suffered the same fate.

Now it's being presented in a special 'one night only' staged reading benefit on Monday evening, March 23 at 8PM at Town Hall (123 West 43rd Street). Directed by Mark Waldrop, the presentation features a script that has been adapted for this reading by John Epperson (Lypsinka), and also stars Bryan Batt. The reading is a benefit for Friends In Deed - The Crisis Center for Life-Threatening Illness.

Info HERE.

On the Stage: Speech & Debate and Die Mommy Die!


GuestbloggerPlease welcome Kevin Sessums, who adds to his recent reviews of Cyrano de Bergerac, Rock 'n' Roll, and Fuerzabruta with a look at two new productions.

Now that the stagehand strike on Broadway looks to be longer than at first anticipated I thought I’d let you know about four productions not affected by it. Two are comedies and two are dramas. Take your pick or pick all four. They are all to varying degrees worth a visit. Today the comedies. Tomorrow the dramas.

SdEach season there is a breakout hit off-Broadway that theatre mavens flock to. A few seasons ago it was Avenue Q at the Vineyard Theatre, which moved to Broadway and beat Wicked for the Tony for Best Musical in one of the biggest upsets in years. It was ingeniously directed by Jason Moore who has done another ingenious job this season mounting Speech & Debate as the inaugural production at the Roundabout’s new Black Box Theatre downstairs at its Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre at 111 West 46th Street. (Moore is currently busy putting together the Broadway musical version of Shrek.)

Speechdebate2He has cast this play-with-music about cyberspace and sexual secrets and teenage angst — written by Brown graduate Stephen Karam — with his usual keen eye. Susan Blackwell in the dual roles of the teacher and a local reporter finds different ways to be kindhearted and yet officious in each role. The two male leads, Jason Fuchs and Gideon Glick, as the high school gay nerds, Solomon and Howie, can be cruelly awkward and caustically funny and eccentrically sexy all at the same time. But it is Sarah Steele who is the revelation of this production as Diwata, the female drama queen of the high school. Steele played Adam Sandler’s daughter in James Brooks’ film Spanglish a few years back, but now almost all grown up she is heartbreaking and hilarious and rightly full of bravado. It seemed at times watching the brilliant Steele as if she had boarded some sort of theatrical time machine and Charlotte Rae were playing one of her own charges in The Facts of Life. Steele is so good she keeps your head spinning trying to come up with such concepts to describe what she’s accomplishing in this production, especially when, as a character from The Crucible, she really does board some sort of theatrical time machine in her character’s fertile mind to perform in a musical she has written in which she meets up with Abe Lincoln.

Speech & Debate is more than utterly delightful. It is in its confounding simplicity a profound little gem of a play about the complexities of difference.

T T T (out of 4 possible T's)

Speech & Debate, Roundabout Underground, Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street (between 6th Ave & Broadway), New York. Ticket information here.


Charles Busch is back where he belongs — on a stage and bewigged and batting around, like only he can, the finely honed bon mots he has written with his own manicured hand.

Dmd_2In his latest production, Die Mommie Die! at New World Stages, he plays Angela Arden, a washed-up singer circa 1967. On a sumptuous set that captures the Hollywood hyper-hacienda aesthetic, Busch and his talented co-stars gleefully mug their way through a murder mystery he has so expertly concocted to showcase his singular talents. Busch is more than a drag queen. He is an accomplished male actress — arch and chiding and chillingly funny. He presides over his plays like a latter-day Lynn Fontaine played by Alfred Lunt.

The supporting cast in this outing can match him laugh for laugh. The hillbilly maid is played by Kristine Nielsen. Ashley Morris, newly graduated from North Carolina School for the Arts, is making her New York debut as Angela’s daughter Edith and she is a perky, sexy delight. Chris Hoch plays the well-hung gigolo, Tony Parker. (I think the play pre-dates Eva Longoria’s marriage to the basketball star with the same name, but every time his name was mentioned in the play I kept wondering if the real Tony Parker — and hence, Eva — were both so blessed.) Angela’s movie producer husband, Sol, who can’t believe he’s lost financing for the Billie Holiday story starring Elizabeth Taylor, is played by Bob Ari (Frank Langella’s understudy in the recent Frost/Nixon) who lends a bit of his legit stage chops to the parodic proceedings.

Dmd2And for you Towleroad readers who have watched the YouTube clips posted here from the soap opera As The World Turns of the teenage gay character, Luke Snyder, there is Van Hansis. He plays Snyder on the soap, but nothing could prepare you soap fans for the outrageousness of his portrayal of Lance, Angela’s gay son who has been cast as Ado Annie in his college production of Oklahoma.

For those of you disapppointed in the film version of Die Mommie Die! — and I count myself among you — don’t let it deter you from this 90 minute intermissionless version. It’s much better than the movie. And you should never miss the opportunity to experience Charles Busch onstage. Busch is in a league of his own.

T T 1/2 (out of 4 possible T's)

Die Mommie Die!, New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street, New York. Ticket information here.

Next up: Things We Want and Peter and Jerry

Recent Reviews
On the Stage: Cyrano de Bergerac
On the Stage: Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll [tr]
On the Stage: Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll and Fuerzabruta [tr]
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