By: Paulanne Simmons
February 10, 2020: Charles Busch, that master of drag mixed with satire and topped off with a touch of sentimentality, is at it again. The show is called The Confession of Lily Dare and it features Busch as Lily Dare, an innocent orphan who comes to live with her aunt, Rosalie Mackintosh (Jennifer Van Dyck), an infamous San Francisco madame.
The story is told by Mickey, the gay brothel piano player (Kendal Sparks), and the warmhearted prostitute, Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson), who meet while visiting Lily’s grave decades after her death. In several flashbacks, we learn of Lily’s fate and how Mickey and Emmy Lou were involved in it.
It seems that after arriving chez Madame Rosalie, Lily, in quick succession, fell in love with Louis, the brothel bookkeeper (Christopher Borg), became pregnant and survived the 1906 San Francisco, along with Mickey and Emmy Lou, but not Rosalie and Louis. She named her daughter Louise, and, in order to support the baby, turned herself into the sexy chanteuse, Mandalay, with the help of Blackie Lambert (Howard McGillin), a crook with class.
Unfortunately, Mandalay’s career is cut short when Blackie tricks her into confessing to a theft he committed. When she gets out of the slammer, she finds out that Louise has been adopted by a wealthy couple, Dr. and Mrs. Carlton (Borg and Van Dyck).
After one unsuccessful visit, Lily realizes her daughter will only be destroyed by any contact with her mother. Lily follows in Rosalie’s footsteps, and Louise (Van Dyck again) becomes an internationally acclaimed opera singer. Except for one time when Lily uses some kind of extrasensory process to help her daughter play the courtesan Violetta in La Traviata, Lily keeps far away from Louise.
If much of this sounds familiar, it should. All the plot elements have been lifted from any number of Hollywood films of the 20s and 30s, when maternal sacrifice and the whore with a heart of gold were major cinematic plot sources. Watching Busch strut across the stage, clutching his breast and sighing passionately, one can’t help but see traces of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Irene Dunne. When he sings, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Sophie Tucker seem to come to life simultaneously.
The Confession of Lily Dare, deftly directed by Carl Andress, walks the fine line between comedy and melodrama. The set is flimsy. The costumes seem thrown together. The characters make sure you know they’re playing a role. But if the characters are foul-mouthed and ridiculous, they are also loving and likable.
When the lights go out and come back up for the final bows, you may find yourself laughing through your tears.
The Confession of Lily Dare runs through March 5 at Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce St., primarystages.org
Photography: Carol Rosegg