By Stanford Friedman
Charles Busch is the camp Bruce Springsteen. In 1984, as Springsteen’s release of Born in the U.S.A. was bringing The Boss mainstream success, Busch premiered his Vampire Lesbians of Sodom at the Limbo Lounge in the East Village, giving rise to a distinct following of his own. Of course, where Springsteen is the introspective balladeer of the working class, Busch is the flamboyant chronicler of the fabulous. And now, as the second famous sexagenarian currently performing to full houses in a one-man musical retrospective, Busch surveys his upbringing while crooning tunes from the likes of Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Webb. He has on a Springsteen-ish black T-shirt, but it’s worn beneath a green paisley pantsuit with the most sparkly buttons you’ve ever seen.
Busch calls his new show My Kinda 60s and, though that title begs to be taken two ways, he steers clear of any talk about what it is like to be a man of a certain age who has found success as a playwright and notoriety while adorned in a red wig and heels. Instead, he takes us on a tour of his childhood and teen years in 1960s Manhattan. Born in suburban Hartsdale, his mother died when he was only seven and he went to live in The Big Apple with his Aunt Lillian. She viewed his adolescence with “veiled horror and terrible empathy,” ultimately saving him from a lesser fate. To say that Lil was Busch’s Auntie Mame would be too simplistic, he points out. Instead, he suggests, she had more the generosity and wherewithal of David Copperfield’s great-aunt Betsey Trotwood. There are amusing tales of his obsession with the likes of Jean Shrimpton and Vivien Leigh, a very funny story involving Paul McCartney and a decidedly non-explicit version of discovering the joys and wonders of the all-male swimming pool at the McBurney YMCA, at age 16. If few of his meditations dive deep into his psyche, the splashing around is pleasure enough.
With his longtime musical director, Tom Judson, accompanying him on piano and harmonies, Busch weaves eleven songs of the era into his storytelling. What he lacks in tonal purity, he makes up for in smart choices and interpretations. Early on, there is a stirring rendition of Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” a la Dionne Warwick. He points out that movie theme songs were in their heyday in the 60s and launches into Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road.” In a joyful arrangement of The Turtle’s “Happy Together,” he and Judson sing in a round. As for the great Jimmy Webb, Busch keenly notes that his songs “allow you to create your own narrative.” As proof, he stunningly reinvents “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” as the story of a man who leaves his long relationship with a woman to find his true sexual self.
For his closing number, Busch opts for the ole chestnut, “Those Were the Days,” and for a few moments it feels like we are at last call at Marie’s Crisis Café, instead of the glittering Feinstein’s/54 Below (where the bow tie clad wait staff offer up impeccable service). Among the notables in the house on opening night was his contemporary, John Epperson (a.k.a Lypsinka). As Busch warbled the classic Gene Raskin lyrics, he might have been singing directly to Epperson, or to his own teenage self, “Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser/For in our hearts the dreams are still the same.”
Charles Busch: My Kinda 60’s
Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 W 54th St. Cellar, $25 Food & Beverage Minimum, (646) 476-3551, https://54below.com/events/charles-busch-2/ Through October 21. Running time: 80 minutes.