"GASP! Are you her?" said the intern who was about to push the button on the MRI machine.
"Yes!" said Charles Busch, in his grandest Norma Shearer manner, "I am she! Push the button." And so Charles regally slid slowly into the MRI tube.
This was a story Charles told on himself about the "rare" times he is ever recognized. ("My aunt told me, 'If I didn't know who you are, I wouldn't know who you are.")
The chameleon-like actor/playwright did a one-night-only stand of his latest endeavor, a touring cabaret show at 54 Below. Charles comes on looking a lot like Rhonda Fleming, wearing a daunting red wig. He gave his fans what they expect from this genius. (Fans that included music titan Clive Davis, Turner Classic Movies maestro Robert Osborne and yours truly.)
"I'm here to present a show that runs the gamut, from A to B-flat," Charles said after an amusing opening number about the right kind of number to begin his unusual offering. I call it "unusual" because, well -- we know that Charles is really a man. (And when he is himself, just plain Charles, he's terribly attractive!) But up onstage at this beautiful nightclub, which is literally right below the old Studio 54 in New York City, Charles has the look and manner of a genuine female song stylist; a little light on voice, but heavy on sensitivity and interpretation. Believe me, his renditions of "Close to You," "My Ship," "Those Were the Days (My Friend)" and especially a rather obscure Arlen/Mercer number, "I Wonder What Became of Me," are downright moving.
Of course, there are plenty of fall-down-laughing moments, such as a point/counterpoint reading of a portion of the autobiographies of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. His, by the way, is one of the best Davis impersonations I've seen. He has mastered quite a bit of post-stroke Bette, who really stretched her words with still-compelling authority.
And perhaps the highlight, which had the audience shrieking, was Charles reading from the first chapter of Arlene Dahl's 1965 book of advice to women, "Key to Femininity." I don't know if the lovely Arlene would now disavow any of her riotously prehistoric views on men and women -- not to mention, printing the views of Rock Hudson, Tony Perkins and Noel Coward on what they appreciate in a woman -- but it has to be one of the funniest things I've ever seen. People were gasping for air, they laughed so hard. I know Arlene and she has a good sense of humor. (This morning, I was gasping for air again, after receiving an email from Charles. I wish I could reprint the most outrageous line, but it's probably best for both of us if I don't. I'll save it for my next memoir.)
CHARLES performs a musical tribute to Gladys George, the fabled whiskey-voice actress of the '30s and '40s, who usually played whiskey-soaked slatterns. As Charles points out, she even played Madame du Barry that way, in the 1938 classic "Marie Antoinette."
No mention of this show could be complete without a salute to Charles' pianist, the unbearably hunky Tom Judson. Judson not only tickles the ivories beautifully, he has a terrific voice, which he displays in a solo number, and then in a duet with Busch. Before Tom's solo, Charles tells of a reviewer who didn't like him, but adored Tom. He said, "Now, other stars of my caliber might say, 'the song goes, and the kid goes with it!'" (Susan Hayward's line from "Valley of the Dolls.") Of course, then, while Tom is singing, Charles fusses and attempts to upstage him. It's hilarious.
In his best chanteuse moments, tender and tremulous, one wants to say, "Quiet, please, there's a lady on the stage."
Busch next performs in Michigan at the Acorn Theater in Three Oaks on Saturday, June 2. And perhaps he'll be back at 54 Below in the fall. In July, he'll record a radio adaptation of his play, "The Divine Sister," with Julie Halston and Alison Fraser for L.A. Theatre Works.
Listen; get thee to the Acorn Theater tomorrow. Michigan's not that far. And it'll be worth your time.
NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE. If you're lucky enough to meet the legendary Robert Redford in person, don't tell him how good looking he is because, according to Hampton Sheet publisher, Joan Jedell, he hates it! Redford graces the cover of the Memorial Day issue of the magazine.
Jedell, who sat down with the screen and independent film legend, claims that when she met Redford it was cover at first sight! In her magazine, publisher Jedell chatted with the original Great Gatsby of the Hamptons and Redford told her that his first career choice was artist, not actor, and that when they made "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" the "kid" was still something of an unknown quantity with a pretty face. He had only had one hit at that point -- "Barefoot in the Park" co-starring Jane Fonda.
Well, "Butch Cassidy..." truly launched Redford's film career and gave him the name for his Sundance Film Festival, which in turn has launched the careers of many other actors and filmmakers. Joan's interview coupled with her signature hand-painted cover of the star will make it seem like Robert Redford is sitting with you in your living room.
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun