Monday, March 16, 2020

Parodies: The Confession of Lily Dare and Little Shop of Horrors

Nancy Anderson and Charles Busch in The Confession of Lily Dare. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

The last two shows I caught in New York before the theatre went dark were both lighthearted parodies, Charles Busch’s The Confession of Lily Dare (produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village) and the latest revival of Little Shop of Horrors (at the midtown off-Broadway house the Westside). Busch has chosen an obscure subject for a 2020 audience – the mother-love melodramas that were popular in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, the days just before the Hays (Production) Code went into effect in Hollywood, imposing decades of infantilizing self-censorship on filmmakers. But the matinee audience sitting around me, howling with delight, seemed to get the references. (They must have been devoted TCM viewers.) In Lily Dare, the closest pals and associates of a notorious San Francisco madam, a whore named Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson) and a gay honky-tonk pianist named Mickey (Kendal Sparks), meet at her grave and recall her meteoric rise and tragic downfall. Busch himself, a drag performer imbued with firecracker wit, hair-trigger timing and devastating charisma, played Lily in flashbacks.

A program note credits as one of Busch’s sources Madame X (1929) starring Ruth Chatterton (which was remade as late as 1966, in a stupefying version with Lana Turner), in which a young lawyer unwittingly defends his own estranged mother, a one-time socialite who was forced to abandon him when he was a baby, when she goes on trial for committing murder in order to protect him. The note includes other movies in this peculiar genre I’ve never seen (Frisco Jenny – Chatterton again – and Helen Hayes’s Oscar winner, The Sin of Madelon Claudet). But the narrative set-up – an orphaned convent girl goes to live with her Aunt Rosalie (Jennifer Van Dyck), who runs a whorehouse – is the same as that of Queen Kelly, the late silent Gloria Swanson worked on for director Erich von Stroheim, until she grew so appalled at his methods that she got her lover, Joe Kennedy, who was financing the picture, to pull the plug. (The forty minutes or so he managed to shoot before being closed down can be seen on DVD, and, ironically, when Swanson’s Norma Desmond screens one of her hits for William Holden’s Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard – in which Stroheim plays the movie director-turned-butler Max – what we see are clips fromQueen Kelly.) I also recognized bits of Show Boat, with Lily standing in for the alcoholic cabaret singer Julie and Lily’s aspiring opera-singer daughter Louise (Van Dyck), who has never known the identity of her mother, for the ingénue Magnolia. The combination made for a very rich stew. Howard McGillin played Blackie Lambert, the gambler who bankrolls Lily and then betrays her, and the inspired farceur Christopher Borg juggled five different parts, including a baron whose eyes, ringed with mascara, pop like corn in a microwave. The whole cast performed with panache, but aside from Busch, I’d say that Borg and Van Dyck were the funniest. Busch affected a stage-aristocrat mid-Atlantic accent that sent up the absurdly fake sound of early-talkie acting with deadly precision, did indescribable things with her mouth that I’m not sure even Carol Burnett in her prime could have improved upon, and occasionally broke into an impression of Mae West. He knows his camp: in act two he had a scene where Lily bemoans the fact that she has lost her sense of herself, and his impersonation of high drama was so convincing that for just a moment you forgot you weren’t watching the real thing.

True to camp’s burlesque origins, the dialogue in Lily Dare is spiced up by always unexpected explosions of ribaldry. (The only time the shift doesn’t work is in the climactic reunion of mother and daughter, when Louise’s sudden descent into blue language feels like a stretch, even in a play in this style.) Carl Andress’s production had the look and spirit of revue-sketch comedy; it was sophomoric in the best possible way. B.T. Whitehill’s set, Kirk Bookman’s lighting (which occasionally quoted expressionist productions of the twenties and thirties, with their geometric zones of light) and especially Rachel Townsend’s sumptuously over-the-top costumes enhanced the comic pleasures of the show. You could practically hear the collaborators breaking up in the wings.

 Gideon Glick in Little Shop of Horrors. (Photo: Emilio Madrid-Kuser)

It wasn’t strictly necessary to see another Little Shop of Horrors, much as I enjoy Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical version of the schlubby 1960 Roger Corman movie. But I wanted to check out Christian Borle as Orin Scrivello, the sadistic dentist whom the Skid Row florist-shop hero, Seymour Krelborn, sacrifices to his man-eating plant, Audrey II, so when the sold-out production extended for a second time I managed to score a seat. Borle, whose comedian’s secret is an almost preternatural relaxation while he’s reaching for outrageous visual and vocal effects, didn’t disappoint. (He never disappoints.) And the show, directed by Michael Mayer, was very pleasant, though as Audrey, Scrivello’s girlfriend/victim and the object of Seymour’s dreams, the gifted Tammy Blanchard missed the mark by working so hard to find a New York working-class quirkiness for the character that she forgot to make her touching. Jonathan Groff had already left the show and his replacement, Gideon Glick, was out the night I saw it, but the understudy, Chris Dwan, certainly earned his laughs. Kingsley Leggs had the R&B chops for Audrey II’s two songs, “Git It (Feed Me)” and Suppertime.” For some reason actors who take on the role of Mushnik, Seymour’s ulcerated boss – outside of Vincent Gardenia in the 1986 movie musical – always seem a little flat to me, and Tom Alan Robbins followed suit. And though you couldn’t fault the singing of the three urchins (Kris Roberts as Ronnette, Salome Smith as Crystal and Joy Woods as Chiffon), I thought they lacked personality, and that Tom Broecker could have had a lot more fun with their costumes – with all the costumes, in fact, at least in the first act. Ellenore Scott’s choreography was fine but uninventive. The best thing about the show besides Borle as Orin was Borle as everyone else – he stepped into about half a dozen other roles, most of them after the dentist’s demise at the end of the first act, and the running gag just kept getting funnier. It also reminded those of us who were lucky enough to see it of Borle’s star turn in the Sid Caesar part in the Encores! mounting of Little Me. This is the sixth time I’ve seen Borle live. I’m an insatiable fan.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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