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Review: Charles Busch at Cafe Istanbul 

Kevin Allman says Busch's first performance in New Orleans didn't meet expectations

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Playwright/actor Charles Busch (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party) performed an evening of cabaret material in a one-night show at Cafe Istanbul as part of the Broadway at NOCCA series. There were some bright spots — a tribute to the hard-boiled dialogue of films noir was amusing, as were a few of Busch's stories about show business — but much of the evening was wan, low-key to the point of slowness and creaky in spots, particularly a Bette Davis-Joan Crawford reading, a tired cliche that got chuckles rather than laughs. Busch, who has been sharp and amusing in drag personae in spoof films like Die, Mommie, Die! and on YouTube videos, was surprisingly downbeat throughout the evening, and his singing voice was strained from one of the earliest numbers (Billie Holiday's "My Old Flame").

  A guest appearance by New Orleans' own Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson) jolted the audience to life in the middle of the show with an indescribably crazy Swiss bell-ringing act as performed by Roberson-as-Varla-as-Quasimodo ("Ring Them Bells," with lyrics by Ricky Graham). It brought down the house. Busch's pianist Tom Judson was fine, offering occasional jokes and a nice solo. Unfortunately, things slowed down considerably after that, and by the time Busch and Judson encored with a duet of "Close to You," Busch's voice seemed to be gone entirely. During the curtain call, the audience applauded politely for Busch and Judson, but Merman/Roberson did not, for whatever reason, take a bow. This was Busch's first appearance in New Orleans, and it would be great to see him return with one of his plays.

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