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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 sendup of the sort of melodramatic, pre-Code weepies that used to star the likes of Ruth Chatterton, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis.
Working with such frequent collaborators as director Carl Andress and actress Jennifer Van Dyck, Busch plays the title role of Lily Dare, first seen in turn-of-the-century San Francisco as a fresh-faced, innocent 16-year-old girl fresh out of a Swiss convent school. Newly orphaned, Lily arrives at the fancy bordello run by her Aunt Rosalie (Van Dyck), who agrees to take in the niece she’s never known.
Thus begins a decades-spanning storyline that finds Lily falling in love with the bordello’s impoverished bookkeeper (Christopher Borg) and raising their infant daughter alone after he’s killed in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. She then falls under the sway of handsome, crooked rake Blackie Lambert (Broadway matinee idol Howard McGillin, Phantom of the Opera), who self-knowingly introduces himself as “a shady character from a once prominent family who adds a veneer of class to whatever room he’s in.”
Lily becomes a celebrated cabaret singer, providing the opportunity for Busch to deliver a passionate rendition of an original torch song, “Pirate Joe,” composed by Tom Judson. But her life takes a tragic turn when she’s framed for a crime she didn’t commit and spends five years in jail. When she gets out, she discovers that her daughter is being raised by a prosperous doctor and his wife (Borg, Van Dyck), who have no intention of letting her go. Lily eventually winds up becoming a madame herself, watching from afar as her daughter (Van Dyck) grows up to become a prominent opera singer. More melodrama, including murder, ensues.
The playwright and star, now 65, seems less interested these days in shock value. This effort, although it has its share of outrageous lines (“There’s always work to be found for a piano player who knows ragtime and a hooker who does anal,” one character informs us), feels more decorous than many of his previous works. At times, it’s played so straight you almost forget you’re watching a parody and become emotionally caught up in the plight of its tragic heroine. Busch invests his characterization with genuine depth of feeling that makes clear his profound affection for the vintage films that provide its inspiration.
His fondness for the celluloid past isn’t always to the evening’s benefit, on the other hand, as The Confession of Lily Dare notably lags at times and would have benefited from some judicious trimming of its two-hour running time.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of hilarity on display, since Busch also generously allows space for his talented ensemble to shine. Van Dyck, particularly riotous in her multiple roles, garners big laughs with her flamboyant readings of such seemingly innocuous lines as “Must everyone have a personality?” Borg showcases similar virtuosity, while McGillin employs his trademark polished suavity to sly comic effect. And Broadway veteran Nancy Anderson and Kendal Sparks are delightful as Lily’s best friends, whose visit to her grave tags a cinematic-feeling bookend onto the narrative.
And, of course, there are Busch’s wonderfully flamboyant costumes and wigs — courtesy of Jessica Jahn and Katherine Carr, respectively, while Rachel Townsend designed the costumes for the rest of the ensemble. The outfits aid the performer in evoking a series of screen goddesses, including, most deliciously, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. Although it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Busch would somehow manage to appear equally glamorous even without all the accoutrements.
Venue: Cherry Lane Theatre, New York
Cast: Nancy Anderson, Christopher Borg, Charles Busch, Howard McGillin, Kendal Sparks, Jennifer van Dyck
Playwright: Charles Busch
Director: Carl Andress
Set designer: B. T. Whitehill
Costume designer: Rachel Townsend
Lighting designer: Kirk Bookman
Sound designer: Bart Fasbender
Presented by Primary Stages, in association with Jamie deRoy, Ted Snowdon
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