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A CurtainUp Review
The Confession of Lily Dare
By Simon Saltzman
My services as a chanteuse are in demand in the finest gin mills in this city. — Lily
Nancy Anderson and CharlesBush - Photo by Carol Rosegg
Charles Busch is a treasure - not necessarily a national treasure in the traditional sense but a treasure of a specific genre that is referenced traditionally as en travestie. What that boils down to is that Busch has made his mark as a consummate portrayer of women on the stage for the past thirty five years. Not just any women but those essentially a bit larger than life who have captured his imagination and his passion as a writer and performer. For the moment, filmdom's barely remembered Ruth Chatterton has found her re-animator in Busch in The Confession of Lily Dare , a stunning production, under the beautifully finessed direction of Carl Andress, for Primary Stages.

Following in the tradition of former lauded exponents of drag parody Charles Ludlam and Everett Quinton, Busch remains at his peak in this purposely sad, sordid and blissfully campy tale of a fallen woman. Although Busch's skill for writing more conventional comedy was notable with his first play The Tale of the Allergist's Wife , a Broadway success and recipient of a Best Play Tony in 2000, he is at his most disarming when led off the beaten path.

As author and as star, Busch can now add the very funny and also surprisingly touching The Confession of Lily Dare to his growing canon that includes such off-the-wall epics as Die, Mommy Die , The Lady in Question and The Divine Sister . In these, he brought more emotional gravitas to such former icons of filmdom as Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Rosalind Russell than they could have ever withstood in any of their films. It's now time for the great but barely remembered Ruth Chatterton to get her due.

As luck would have it, Turner Classic Movies recently devoted almost a full day to Pre-Code melodramas from the early 1930s that starred the great Ruth Chatterton among others - even one that starred a young Helen Hayes...all of which I was addicted to. Such melodramas as The Sin of Madelon Claudet , Frisco Jenny , and Madam X was to be Busch's inspiration for his own melodramatic, heart-breaking, but more often hilarious version of a fallen woman - Lily Dare.

I can't really guess or even wonder whether those who don't enjoy watching the old tearjerkers will embrace what Busch has done so affectionately and admirably with The Confession of Lily Dare ...a rather daring commitment to be both reverential and riotous. The audience on the night I attended got it and roared their approval. Yes, the extravagantly over-the-top costumes (designed by Rachel Townsend and Jessica Jahn), the beautifully coiffed wigs (designed by Katharine Karr) are in abundant display. An impressive unit setting (designed by B.T. Whithill) embraces the play's star and the terrific supporting cast within its ever changing Art Deco-dant designs.

The play takes place during the turn of the 20th century within San Francisco's Barbary Coast before and after the great earthquake. Lily's story, however, is revealed in flashback and begins and ends in 1950 at her grave where her life-long friend and prostitute Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson) and their mutual life-long friend Mickey (Kendal Sparks) commiserate as they pay their respects and recall better and worse days.

The plot begins in 1906 with the arrival of the young and innocent sixteen year Lily (Busch) to her new home - a whore house - after she has been booted out of her convent school in Switzerland following her mother's death. Busch's show-stopping entrance as Lily in a demure pinafore, cape and her ringlets tucked beneath her broad brimmed hat - just teaser of the visual delights to follow.

Lily has been placed in the custody of her Aunt, the tough as nails Madam of the whore house, Mrs. Carlton (Jennifer Van Dyck). There she is confined to the upper floors where she studies to be a singer. It isn't long before her beauty and talent is noticed by the adoring piano player (also Sparks) but also by notorious underworld figure Blackie Lambert (Howard McGillan) who has plans for Lily.

Those plans and their aftermath - too sad and sordid to be revealed by me - may drag (no pun intended) a bit over the course of two acts, but Busch keeps the abundance of smart and sassy clich├ęs tied to the chain of formulaic events: the depths of Lily's despair over her abandoned child, her short-lived career as a celebrated cabaret chanteuse (think of a composite of Dietrich and West,) as the owner of a chain of bordellos, and as a jailbird.

Aside from Busch's sublimely nuanced (really!!!) performance, is the excellence of the supporting players. Long-standing class act is the blond ringlet-ed Anderson who literally glows as Lily's devoted friend Emmy Lou. Sparks has the hardest role by playing it straight as friend Micky. Combine despicable and debonair and you've got McGillin's take on the scoundrel Blackie. Christopher Borg is so good he's almost unrecognizable transitioning various characters. But no one can take the prize away from Van Dyck for stealing scene after scene playing no less than four characters including Louise, Lily's grown-up, opera-singing (arias that bring down the house) daughter. The only confession I need to make is that I was in need of at least one good laugh and I got many more than I bargained for.

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The Confession of Lily Dare By Charles Busch Directed by Carl Andress
Cast: Nancy Anderson (Emmy Lou), Christopher Borg (Louis, The Baron, Dr. Carlton), Charles Busch (Lily Dare), Howard McGillin (Blackie Lambert), Kendal Sparks (Mickey), Jennifer Van Dyck (Aunt Rosalie, The Baroness, Mrs. Carlton, Louise)
Set Design: B.T. Whitehill
Costume Design: Rachel Townsend and Jessica Jahn)
Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman
Sound Design: Bart Fasbender
Wig Design: Katharine Carr
Original Song and Arrangements: Tom Judson
PSM: Carolyn Richer
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Primary Stages at Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce St.
From 01/08 Opened 01/29/20 Ends 03/04/20
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 01/28/20

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