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Behind the Sequined Veil

Famous New York performer Charles Busch hits the Richmond stage.

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Seeing the musical "Mame" on Broadway in the mid-1960s, Charles Busch and his Aunt Lillian were shocked by the similarities between themselves and the characters on stage.

"We were living it," says Busch, an actor and playwright who's made a name for himself by starring in his own cheeky plays as a female impersonator. "We were seeing this stylized, fantasy version of ourselves on the stage."

The story of a flamboyant New York woman who suddenly becomes guardian of her 10-year-old nephew, "Mame" has special resonance with Busch; after the death of his own mother he came to live with his aunt in Manhattan. Though perhaps not a larger-than-life character like Mame, Lillian Blum was a cultured, elegant woman who encouraged Busch to pursue his artistic endeavors.

It's with Blum in mind that Busch crafted his latest cabaret, "My Kinda 60s," which comes to Richmond Triangle Players on Sept. 7 and 8. Mixing tales of New York in the 1960s with songs from the era by Stephen Sondheim, the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, and John Kander and Fred Ebb, Busch hopes to impart a sense of who his aunt was.

"She was an extraordinary person, the most influential person in my life," says Busch, reached by phone from his Greenwich Village apartment earlier this month.

Busch first achieved acclaim in the 1980s through his hugely successful play "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," which follows two immortal rivals through the millennia. Like many of Busch's shows, the play leavens its bitchy lines and high culture references with an underlying sweetness.

Highly prolific, Busch has targeted things as varied as 1960s beach films ("Psycho Beach Party") and McCarthy-era Hollywood ("Red Scare on Sunset"), though he's perhaps best known for "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife." Telling the off-kilter story of an Upper West Side woman in a midlife crisis, "Allergist's Wife" was nominated for three Tonys, two Drama Desk Awards and won Busch an Outer Critics Circle Award.

In 2012, Busch returned from a two-decade hiatus from cabarets, playing cruise ships with musical director and accompanist Tom Judson, who Triangle audiences may remember from 2011's touring show "Canned Ham." They've since collaborated on several cabarets, including "My Kinda 60s"; Judson will accompany Busch for the Triangle shows.

Unlike many of Busch's performances, he isn't in drag for this act, a development he once compared to Salome's last veil.

"When we started doing the act, there was no question that I was going to be in drag, because that's sort of what I'm known for," he says. In the past year, Busch has started performing nondrag cabarets. "It gives me a wider range of stories to tell, because when I was in drag, I tended to stay away from anecdotes that were predicated on my maleness."

The choice of performing cabarets — often intimate or revealing forms of performance — isn't far from the mark for Busch; even with "Allergist's Wife," much of Busch's work has played with the idea of identity.

"A creative life in any of the arts is the constant search for self-definition," he says. "I don't think we intend it to be, but everything is a self-portrait."

It's a portrait that still seems to include "Mame" as a running motif. One of the anecdotes Busch recalls in his new show even parallels one in "Mame"; when Busch showed talent for drawing, Aunt Lillian enrolled him in an adult nude-drawing class.

"The adults in the class got all silly and giggly, and the instructor finally had to ball them all out; 'Leave that kid alone and act like adults,'" says Busch, who's played Auntie Mame on stage in the play version of the show.

Ultimately, it's the spirit of Blum that Busch hopes to preserve.

"I'd like the audience to come away with something of an accurate portrait of who she was and the lessons she taught me," he says. "Auntie Mame just keeps going around and around." S

"Charles Busch: My Kinda 60s" plays Friday, Sept. 7, and Saturday, Sept. 8, at Richmond Triangle Players' Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave. Visit rtriangle.org or call 346-8113.

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