Dallas — Location, location, location.
Who wouldn’t want to get their hands on the handsome Manhattan townhome depicted in rich detail in Kevin Brown’s set for The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom; Die, Mommie, Die!), directed with his customary bounce and style by B.J. Cleveland for Uptown Players?
The playwright/performer’s latest hit, which opened off-Broadway in 2014, centers on an aging female impersonator name Jimmy, the title character played by Busch in the premiere, and in Uptown’s chic production by Coy Covington, whose repertoire includes eight Busch heroines. Covington also designed the stunning wigs and makeup for this show, as well as many other award-winning productions at Uptown.
Covington’s tall, svelte and hilariously empathetic depiction of bitch-divas has made him a favorite of Uptown fans. He doesn’t disappoint this time, as a Vegas cross-dresser out of work because young partiers don’t recognize his once-renowned Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn impersonations. Throughout the show Covington’s Jimmy shifts easily from his own patter to Joan and Marilyn and so many ladies of the silver screen, we hardly know what’s really his story and what is her story. Jimmy hisses anyone referring to him as a drag queen, since he considers his embodiment of each star a tribute from one artist to another. Perfect description of Covington’s buoyant performance here.
Jimmy is back in the West Village where he’s staying with the imperious Adriana (a divinely haughty Mary Campbell), an elderly designer and owner of the fabulous chunk of real estate everybody wants to inherit.
In a furiously funny opening scene, Jimmy’s sidekick Rita (an up-for-anything Angie McKnight), a reckless lesbian real estate agent who urgently needs a sale, talks Jimmy into the impersonator role of his life after Adriana makes her final bow. McKnight and Covington are a hilarious Lucy/Ethel act, plotting their moves and throwing perfectly timed jibes at each other.
Desperate people breed desperate plots. If Jimmy can keep the old gal alive through his own impersonation, maybe these sensational schemers can get the house sold and make off with a fortune. Crazy as a fox in a feathered boa, right?
Ah, but all kinds of relatives and lovers start crawling out of the crown molding. The designer’s niece Christina (a comically whining Cara Serber), a hard-luck beautician with no shop, shows up with her smarty-pants trans teenage son Oliver (a bright-eyed Zander Pryor, a trans actor), whose own mom still calls him Rachel. Jimmy is sympathetic, explaining to the kid that “as one ages the gender becomes blurred.”
No sooner have these two appealed their case for ownership, than Adrianna’s younger ex-boyfriend Rodney (a tall, bald and macho Luke Longacre) appears on the doorstep and just about anywhere there’s a woman, or a dress full of womanly equipment. Lusty Rodney is achingly sexy, and quivering Jimmy nearly loses his impostor cool when he lays his cheek on that burly chest. Rita is no help, channeling director Cleveland’s bumbling drunk in one spectacularly daffy scene.
Suzi Cranford’s posh, colorful costumes add excitement and glamour to a visually scrumptious night of theater. But the real fun is watching first-rate actors land the zinger and the haughty dismissal with equal comic finesse. Cleveland’s direction is brisk and playful, and the energetic cast brings this roiling romp to a surprising and sweetly human resolution.
Here’s to female impersonators, cross-dressers, tribute artists and drag queens everywhere. May their stilettos click on forever.
» Read our interview with Coy Covington and Charles Busch here.