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Life is a Cabaret (Again)!: A Divine Evening With Charles Busch

By Robert Burke Warren

Photo by Frederic Aranda.

Few, if any, entertainers are more full service than actor-singer-playwright-novelist-librettist-screenwriter-director-drag pioneer-force of nature, Charles Busch. Opportunities to see him in action, up close and personal, are rare, especially outside Manhattan, but if you’re within driving distance of Hudson, you’re in luck. The two-time MAC Award winner, Tony nominee, and Drama Desk Lifetime Achievement Award recipient alights at Helsinki Hudson for one night only on Sunday, Feb. 21 with A Divine Evening with Charles Busch: The Lady at the Mic.

The event is a special sneak preview of Busch’s upcoming Lincoln Center American Songbook performance. With longtime accompanist Tom Judson, plus accordion and stand-up bass, Busch will veer effortlessly from Sondheim to the Beatles, saluting his friends Elaine Stritch, Polly Bergen, Mary Cleere Haran, Julie Wilson and Joan Rivers.

“Vaudeville is back!” Busch says from his Manhattan apartment. For someone who’s reached several pinnacles of artistic achievement, Busch is refreshingly down-to-earth and chatty; his voice, contoured by decades of singing and projecting from the lip of a stage, still brims with boyish enthusiasm.

“Someone recently told my manager he was turning into Broadway Danny Rose,” he laughs, “and I gotta say, it’s true.” We’re talking about the resurgent popularity of cabaret, which Busch does now more than ever. We agree the demand may be a kind of “corrective” to hi-tech amusements, a means of satisfying the innately human need to experience storytellers live and in person (see also The Moth, Selected Shorts, et al).

A Divine Evening with Charles Busch: The Lady at the Mic, is, essentially, top-notch storytelling, with music. Busch says the cornucopia of song, story, drag, impersonation, and comedy is a return to his early 80s New York cabaret experiences, before he co-created groundbreaking downtown ensemble Theatre-in-Limbo (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom).

“I drifted in and out of low-rent cabaret,” he says of those early days. “It was more like performance art, and so much easier to get booked than to get a play on. It was more out of necessity than anything. I stopped around ’83, when my career as an actor-writer took off.”

Busch has worked consistently ever since, earning plaudits from notoriously hardboiled critics, and garnering an ardent fanbase. He made a foray to the Great White Way in 2000, with his play The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, starring Linda Lavin. It ran at the Ethel Barrymore Theater for 777 performances, winning an Outer Critics Circle Award and three Tony nominations. Hyperion published his novel, he wrote and appeared in movies, and garnered much acclaim as Nat Ginzburg in HBO’s Oz. (This is actually a shortlist.)

But cabaret gave him a callback. “Four years ago,” he says, “I was asked to perform on a gay cruise, and I didn’t have an act. But the fee was good. [Pianist] Tom Judson and I were friends, and he’s good looking and fun, so I called him up, he said sure, and we had a great time. And it’s taken off. It’s marvelous.”

The timing was good. Busch had become frustrated with the playwright’s life: “You work two years on a play and it usually only plays its seven-week nonprofit subscription run,” he says. “Every playwright dreams of a Broadway transfer and that is extremely rare nowadays. I like the simplicity of doing this act, telling my story, singing these songs that are actable. It’s a challenge, especially because I’m in drag, but I don’t have a drag persona. I’m Charles Busch, who comes out looking like Ginger in ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ But I’m actually more comfortable in costume, in a mask. And I’m comfortable with my own androgynous nature.”

Lincoln Center has taken note. “The American Songbook guys like a theme show,” Busch says. “So I sold them on The Lady at the Mic. I’ve known some remarkable New York cabaret women, and in this show I share personal anecdotes about them. It’s a tribute to my friends.”

Enter Hudson-based event planner and impresario Lee Tannen, who has turned Helsinki Hudson into a frequent showcase for New York-based cabaret artists. “Lee invited us to bring the show to Helsinki Hudson before Lincoln Center,” says Busch, “so we could get more than one crack at it. And I love the room. It’s very theatrical. And you can sit down and have your vaudevillian supper!”

Dinner and a show, cabaret style; the old is new again, and the people line up to laugh, sing along to the songs, and let their lives be a cabaret, for one night only. But what a night.

A Divine Evening with Charles Busch: The Lady at the Mic
Sunday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m.
Helsinki Hudson
405 Columbia St., Hudson, NY
(518) 828-4800
Tickets: $60

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