Busch's Latest Tough Tootsie Falls Under Orient's Spell in Shanghai Moon, Opening Jan. 16

News   Busch's Latest Tough Tootsie Falls Under Orient's Spell in Shanghai Moon, Opening Jan. 16 Actor Charles Busch is back in a girdle again after his stint as a Broadway playwright, this time playing a tough tootsie in the parody of stereotype-rich films about opium, Chinese warlords and forbidden love.
Charles Busch in Shanghai Moon.
Charles Busch in Shanghai Moon. (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

Even before its Jan. 16 opening, Shanghai Moon announced an extension at The Greenwich House Theatre, where the Drama Dept. staging began previews Jan. 3. Performances now extend to March 9 (the original run to Feb. 9 was nearly sold out).

In Shanghai Moon Busch stars as Lady Sylvia Allington, the beautiful American-born wife of an aging British diplomat (House and Garden's Daniel Gerroll), who travels to Shanghai to persuade an infamous Chinese warlord to donate a priceless jade to the British Museum. Lady Sylvia, trapped in her loveless marriage, falls headlong into love with the notorious General Gong Fei (M. Butterfly's B.D. Wong), sparking off a mad, passionate affair which must end in murder. Marcy McGuigan plays sage counsel Dr. Wu and Sir Lionel, Sekiya Billman plays the romantic rival Mah Li, Becky Ann Baker (sounding as if she's channeling Glynis Johns) plays British Mrs. Carroll, a brothel owner who may be part Chinese. Gerroll also doubles as Pug Talbott, a Cockney sea captain, and Baker is also Sir Geoffrey.

Carl Andress, who helmed Busch's serious-minded Queen Amarantha, directs.

Busch told Playbill On-Line that after a period of experimenting with new projects, he got back into drag comedy as a kind of therapy.

"You're always trying to figure out who you are and what you do best," Busch said the day before his opening. "I keep trying to zero in on it. I have learned a lot in the past few years. From 1991 to 2001 it seemed liked I spent most of that decade experimenting with new things, different kinds of plays: I wrote a play, You Should Be So Lucky, where I played a male; a play called Queen Amarantha, which was a drag role but a serious role where I wasn't spoofing a genre; I did a cabaret act; I wrote a novel; I played Little Me; Genet's The Maids. Some of them were more successful than others, some were just flops and misguided, maybe. But you gotta try it. "I remember when I was going to do Queen Amarantha, and I felt I was going out on a limb. A writer friend of mine said, 'The assumption is that this isn't the last play you're ever going to do. This is just the play you're doing this year.'"

The next big thing for Busch would be writing the Broadway smash, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, which starred Linda Lavin and Michele Lee and ran two years. He was Tony Award-nominated for it, and the show is now on tour and is poised to be a major title in regional theatres in coming seasons.

"Shanghai Moon emerged after a number of these different experiments," Busch said. "With Queen Amarantha, critics disliked it and the audiences were confused. My friend, Carl Andress, who directed, suggested as therapy maybe I should do something fun in my old style. Just enjoy myself on stage. So we did [Shanghai Moon] at Theatre for the New City for a few weeks in 1999. We didn't invite any critics, I just kind of sold it through my mailing list. But once it was over, I put it in the trunk. It was more therapy than career move. Then my dear friend, Sondra Lee, the legendary Broadway dancer [the original Minnie Fay of Hello, Dolly! and Tiger Lily of Peter Pan], just loved the show and kept telling me I had to do it again. She had this idea that I should do it in London. She kept it alive in my head. Otherwise, it would be in a trunk with a bunch of old wigs and girdles."

The idea of a London run for Shanghai Moon is being pursued by Sondra Lee, who is attached as the associate producer. In the meantime, Busch's next project is rewriting the book to the hit London musical by and about Boy George, Taboo, for Broadway. Rosie O'Donnell is producing.

How did he approach writing Shanghai Moon?

Busch explains, "It starts with: 'Who do I wanna be?' I'd seen a bunch of those movies years ago [including 'The Bitter Tea of General Yen'], and I get a basic gist of the storyline I wanna do. I choose a genre that I have some familiarity with: I knew that I would be the young wife of a diplomat who goes to China and gets involved in this forbidden love affair. Then I do some research: I watched a million different movies. I jotted down a million notes about different moments."

For a leaden dance moment in the show, Busch said he looked at a clunky turn danced by Joan Crawford in a movie called "The Hollywood Revue of 1929." It gets howls of laughter at the Greenwich House.

After 1999, Busch mentioned the show to Drama Dept. artistic director Douglas Carter Bean and a reading was set up, leading to this full staging, which has designers Michael Bottari & Ronald Case (costumes), Paul Huntley (Busch's wig and hair design), E. Katherine Kerr (wigs), B.T. Whitehill (sets), Kirk Bookman (lighting) and Laura Grace Brown (sound). Rick Sordelet is fight director.

Busch, who first made his name with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, was also author and star of Red Scare On Sunset, Psycho Beach Party and The Lady in Question; he also penned the libretto to the musical, The Green Heart. His Die, Mommie, Die! and Psycho Beach Party have been made into films. "Die, Mommie, Die!," is part of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and Busch hopes a distributor picks it up.

Busch said performing will always be of interest to him, and admitted he felt a little lost being a playwright whose play on Broadway didn't have a role for him.

"When the show first opened it was really weird for me, just being the writer because I had no function any more," he said. "For me, [the work] was over yet it was this big hit and it was changing my life, in a way. At first, I felt a little abandoned. At a certain point, though, I remember lying on sofa watching 'Survivor' and thinking: Gee, it's nine o'clock and I guess Linda's startin' Act Two. And that felt kinda good. The check's gonna come in the mail..."

Shanghai Moon tickets are $35. The Greenwich House Theatre is located at 27 Barrow Street off Seventh Avenue South. For reservations, call (212) 633-9632. The Drama Dept. is on the web at http://www.dramadept.org. Visit www.charlesbusch.com.