“Will you be the one to judge her?” If you don’t know what playwright and actor Charles Busch is all about (and my companion the other night at the Cherry Lane Theatre did not), than Primary Stages‘ The Confessions of Lily Dare might make you cock your head to one side in muddled confusion, wondering what the heck all this madness is about. For the already initiated, Busch (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife) is just doing his thing, and doing it with all the fun and festive winks he can manage to shove, most deliciously, inside his corset and this show. It’s a bit overstuffed, the show that is, as it probably would fly along better and wittier in a one Act tighter construct. The story is on point, and the delivery as carefully crafted as Busch’s wigs, tightly coiffed by wig designer Katherine Carr (Off-Broadway’s Psycho Beach Party). Awise madness exists throughout in all the mayhem, but it does gift us quite spectacularly with a hilariously charmed cliffhanger at the end of Act One that feels pretty much on the mark, so maybe I’m wrong about that. There is a ‘je ne sais quoi‘ smartness crafted inside the convoluted story of a young Convent Girl, played with wise “happy-game” camp by Busch, innocently dropped into a bawdy Brothel run by her Aunt Rosalie, delightfully played with a strong stance by Jennifer Van Dyck (BTG’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?). Soon after, she is thrust, on the verge of womanhood into the starring spotlight role of Cabaret Chanteuse, and finally and most infamously, a saucy talking Madame brought down by maternal impulses and a trigger-happy protective finger.
Directed with a wink and a twisted smile by long time collaborator, Carl Andress (Off-Broadway’s Die Mommie Die!), this one woman’s tumultuous trailblazing ride through the land of debauchery and hedonism ending up as a criminally charged madame and mother is a hoot. Not riotously funny, but enough to keep a smile plastered on your face for the duration. Busch, with his particularly high-concept costumes designed by Jessica Jahm and his equally high-concept persona, does all this so well, catching and demanding the throaty wobbling spotlight and giving us the look that reminds us all of the gauzy melodramas of the 1930’s. Those masterful films marched out such grand dames like Bette Davis, Mae West, and Joan Crawford, and those women seem to be stitched into Busch’s DNA. He drips with that nostalgic love and devotion for these great actresses and the tragic women they played, celebrating with a huge salute to the campy confessional films of the pre-code tearjerkers, such as Lana Turner’s “Madame X” or Helen Hayes’ “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” with every emotional stare into the audience at the end of almost every scene.
Kendal Sparks and Nancy Anderson. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
It all begins, as it should, in the dark corner of a graveyard, with Emmy Lou, ridiculous and wonderfully portrayed by the genius Nancy Anderson (u/s for Glenn Close in Broadway/West End’s Sunset Boulevard) meeting up, by accident with long time pal, Mickey, portrayed with a sweet smile by Kendal Sparks (TheatreworksUSA’s Bunnicula). They gaze down at the gravestone of Lily Dare and reflect, most dramatically, on the life lead by their dearly departed friend. The story they tell is packed with wild twists and turns, and naturally a sensational courtroom moment (as they all are). The wicked tale unfolds before us joyfully, with a long line of finely crafted characters played wisely by a strongly committed few. “Must everyone have a personality?” she states. Christopher Borg (Red Scare on Sunsetreading) does well playing Louis, The Baron, and most hilariously, the Priest in the final days of Dare. Howard McGillin (Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera) shines as Blackie Lambert, a contemptible man with few morals but a great sense of high-end style, courtesy of the costuming by Rachel Townsend (Center for Contemporary Opera’s Jane Eyre). He was never there when she needed him most, but his casual haughtiness sits easily on his broad tuxedo-wearing shoulders. But it’s Van Dyck as Louise, the young grown-up child Lily was forced to abandon at a tender innocent age, where the greatest bit of melodrama is squeezed out beautifully. She triumphs in the part of gifted and privileged opera singer, Louise, who can’t shake the idea that someone is watching over her from afar. It’s so hilariously stitched together, just like her other feisty turns as Aunt Rosalie, The Baroness, and adoptive mother, Mrs. Carlton.
Unspooling with the finesse of a retro black and white movie on a camp-tastic set designed by B.T. Whitehill (Primary Stages’ You Should Be So Lucky), with spot-on lighting by Kirk Bookman (Broadway’s The Gin Game) and solid sound design by Bart Fasbender (Public’s Soft Power), The Confession of Lily Dare delivers the goods like a TCM special night of old favorites watched with glee from a comfy couch. It took my companion the intermission to read up on Busch’s grand plan to finally get with the program, embracing the silliness and the humor being tossed most assuredly to the hungry and happy crowd. But once my companion did that mid-show research, his perception of the shenanigans on stage, shifted, from befuddlement to amusement and appreciation. Which makes total sense. If you take this piece as real and authentic drama, the gooeyness would stick to the bottom of your shoe or the back of your throat with cement-like heaviness, but taken as it should, Lily Dare digs deep inside cinema’s glory day, giggling with a wise understanding of its source material, and delighting all of those in the know with a confident wink and sideways grin.
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