All it takes is for Charles Busch to walk on stage in his get-up for the occasion and he has already won over his audience. In his show on March 7, 2013, at New York’s popular new nightspot 54 Below Busch took the spotlight wearing a turban topping his red-head wig with oodles of curls. His black jacket was adorned with glitter, his black pants were trim and the beaded necklace he wore had enough loops to strangle somebody. Then he gave the crowd a knowing look that set the rest of the scene. The audience was already his.
The thing about Busch is that beyond his studied façade he really delivers with his versatile talent. (Off-stage he is an accomplished playwright.) He can cut up with his satirical impressions of movie icons. But he can also tenderly and movingly sing a number like “I Wonder What Became of Me” by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. And he knows how to spin a story for laughs, as when he told of a recent engagement in Hudson New York, where he once had an affair and thought it would be nice to look up his former lover. “But when you do the math he would now be 102,” Busch said. “I know that’s the new 90, but…”
And at one point he mentioned having come back from entertaining on a gay cruise, with two early shows going well, but the last show turned out to look like a leather-theme disco party, and he convulsed the crowd with his description of chases by “old bears” using walkers.
He was on target especially with his reading of bitchy remarks about each other from Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and no surprise, he nailed them both with perfection and utter hilarity. He also impersonated the late actress Gladys George, culminating in the number “Cigarettes Cigars” by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel.
Busch paid tribute to his pianist and musical director Tom Judson, who got his chance to sing. But Busch had fun mugging and looking bored while Judson performed. Busch also did an extremely funny riff on the Cinderella fairy tale with emphasis on the hateful wicked stepmother who winds up killing her stepdaughter.
Pointing out some celebrities in the audience, he highlighted Julie Halston, and said she might come on stage with encouragement. (Much applause,) And up she strode. After a bit of banter, Halston said she likes to read and produced a newspaper announcement of a gay marriage. Before she started to read it, she made the point that New York now has gay marriage, again to applause. Then she satirically went over the item bit by bit, with an array of amusing expressions and her customary expert timing. I had heard her do the routine previously before a receptive very mixed audience and I wondered how gays might react to the piece. No worry. This mostly male crowd roared with delight at every nuance.
Busch has a friendly manner, except when deliberately summoning a bitchy side, and it is easy to see why an audience can take to him. He is, of course, an icon, and anyone who has not yet made his stage acquaintance can take advantage of his 54 Below gig. His next show is on March 14, At 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, Reviewed March 8, 2013.