Legendary playwright and drag performer Charles Busch has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. His current cabaret act, titled “Ridin’ High” is the first club act of his I’ve seen, though I’ve seen many of his plays. The act possesses those qualities I mentioned above, as well as a discreetly dishy side.
Busch has a pleasantly throaty, not terribly strong, high tenor singing voice – but you don’t come to one of his acts for musical virtuosity. As with the greatest cabaret singers, it’s all about how Busch acts the story and emotion of a song. Busch sincerely loves artifice and invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style.
He also uses a technique from his playwrighting background, where he puts something familiar in a new context, usually for comic effect. This is most pronounced where he uses the frame of “the most harshly sunlit noir film ever”, 1945’s Detour, for several songs about traveling from the West Coast to the Midwest.
He breaks midway into a monologue (presumably, but not necessarily, from the film) about taking a lift from a suspiciously familiar car. This character is right in Busch’s main line – comically complex hard-boiled dames – and his delivery is deliciously hilarious.
Sometimes this technique means something as simple as putting on display a thing that used to be self-evidently one way, and is now perceived completely differently. This happens when Busch reads from Always Ask a Man: Arlene Dahl’s Key to Femininity. The title alone suggests where this is going, but the fun piles on as Dahl lists hints from the biggest men’s men of the time – all of whom are now universally acknowledged to have been gay as can be. There’s something in Busch’s delivery that suggests Dahl may have been in on the joke.
In amongst all the fun, Busch delivers a handful of sentimental ballads with heartfelt sincerity, which makes for a good change of pace. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and there’s only one Charles Busch.
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