Charles Busch: Native New Yorker

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Charles Busch

Native New Yorker

Feinstein’s/54 Below, NYC, February 6, 2019

Reviewed by David Hurst for Cabaret Scenes

Charles Busch
Photo: James Gavin

It’s the rare actor who can take an audience from the heights of hilarity to the depths of despair in the blink of an eye, but Charles Busch is such a performer. Long a mainstay of the downtown fringe turned Tony-nominated Broadway playwright and film goddess, Busch has made a name for himself over the past several years as an accomplished storyteller and chanteuse in the world of cabaret. It’s a pleasure to report that the stars have aligned in his latest offering, Native New Yorker, which premiered this week at Feinstein’s/54 Below to rapturous audiences.

As anyone who’s darkened the door of a cabaret during the past 30 years will tell you, there are multitudes of singers ready to “take you on a journey” in their show, but all too quickly we find out that “journey” is the story of how they moved to New York and tried their hand at musical theater. (Those shows are legion but should be avoided at all costs unless you’re a friend of the performer.) Native New Yorker, on the other hand, really is a journey—though Busch would never use that pretentious word, thank goodness.

An insightful and touching look at his salad days as a struggling solo performer and quick-sketch artist, which eventually led to the founding of his Theater-in-Limbo company and its “overnight success” in June of 1985 with the opening of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Native New Yorker is a joyous carnival ride. Busch and his astute music director, Tom Judson, who’s as understated as he is handsome, have selected almost a dozen eclectic and unexpected songs to accompany Busch’s biographical musings. They include a wistful “Pieces of Dreams” (Michel Legrand/Alan and Marilyn Bergman), a pensive “Widescreen” (Rupert Holmes), and, in a salute to the ladies who inspired him (including his beloved Aunt Lil), there’s a rhapsodic “Pretty Women” (Stephen Sondheim), among others.

To be sure, Busch’s singing isn’t from the classic Broadway leading-man school, but it’s effective because of his playwright’s ability to inhabit a lyric and his innate sense of style.

He’s an interpreter of character and a diviner of emotion, if you will, and nowhere is that divining more apparent than in his haunting performance of “Touch Me in the Morning” (Michael Masser/Ron Miller), an homage to Peggy Lee that may leave you moved to tears.

It’s a bold choice and one in which Busch proves his mettle as a serious dramatic actor. Everyone knows he can be funny; that’s his stock in trade.

But this show proves he’s a man with deep emotional resources that he offers up in song.

Those songs, along with Busch’s hilarious reminiscences (and a pricelessly funny joke about Follies), bring Native New Yorker together and transport audience members to its thrilling conclusion at the Provincetown Playhouse, where his band of Limbo outcasts and marginalized performers stand together listening to The New York Times rave review of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom read aloud. With tears streaming down their faces they know their time has come. Has artistic vindication ever been so sweet? Certainly not the way Busch lovingly tells it.

David Hurst

A New Yorker for more than 25 years, David Hurst is the publisher, editor and theatre critic for New York Arts Review (, a fine arts based website which focuses on theatre, opera, dance, music, film and cabaret. He is a classically trained singer, pianist, violinist and percussionist. From 2001 - 2014 he served as the theater critic for Next Magazine in New York. He has written for Opera News, In Theater, and Show Business Weekly and is a voting member of both the New York Drama Desk and the New York Drama League.