It’s easy to point out the obvious – that Bianca Leigh is transgendered, gorgeous and talented. But what lies beyond the sequins, the lively productions numbers and the hilarious anecdotes which pepper her one-woman show, BUSTED: The Musical is the simply stated – but nevertheless complex – concept that how we see ourselves is not always how other see us.
As Ms. Leigh points out in catchy songs (co-written by a team of talented writers: Jeff Whitty, Taylor Mac and Ellen Maddow, Jeff Domoto, Super Buddha, and Matty Pritchard and Isam Rum, along with William TN Hall, who also serves as musical director) sometimes that chasm between perception and reality can be vast. Luckily, BUSTED is set around dozens of charismatic characters who are all ready to be thrust into the spotlight via Ms. Leigh’s seemingly endless ability to channel yet another ghost from the 80s. With lightening speed they make their appearance: aging dungeon mistress, Latin drag queen, tough prison guard, or anyone else Leigh encountered who can lend color and texture to her story.
The action starts way back in 1987, long after the “skinny boy from Jersey” transformed – at least partially – into the preening swan that can rock a plunging neckline. While working as a dominatrix she finds herself arrested. It is more set-up than actual crime, however Leigh finds herself being shuttled off to the tombs nonetheless just like all the other convicts awaiting arraignment. It is there where she meets every color of the rainbow flag, from flamboyant drag queens to men who only claim to be gay in order to avoid the alternative overnight lodgings courtesy of NYPD.
Expected to be treated like a woman Leigh quickly learns that no matter what her outward appearance – or her heart – makes her, she’s still considered a man and is destined to be treated as one in this horrible place. She waits out the 36 endless hours in the murky cell picking out the watershed moments of her past with as much gusto as her cellmates herald the arrival of their prison-issued baloney sandwiches.
Tim Cusack directs Leigh with an even hand – never allowing a tragic scenario to grow to overly melodramatic but never letting the humor roll away without first coating it in a good healthy sheath of darkness. This is, after all, a tale of prison and not since Jean Valjean and Javert has there been a musical that so deeply explored the relationship between prisoner and captor. Okay – well, I may be exaggerating a bit, but watching Ms. Leigh’s complete and utter surrender to her guard at a moment of total helplessness dropped the room to a hush as we held our breath, felt her humiliation, and ached for her. To see Leigh use the symbol that marked her transformation – the thing she’d been fighting for – turned against her in an effort to degrade her was more powerful than anything I’d seen in a long time – let alone during a night of cabaret and laughter. But in that one moment Leigh – like any strong woman – did what the situation called for, knowing that she’d have to put aside whatever made her cringe and simply deal with the emotional fallout later. Now tell me this isn’t a plot arc worthy of Les Miz.
Most of the cabaret style evening had the gung-ho audience hooting and hollering in admiration and full-on worship of all Leigh’s charms; she knows how to win a room over and hold the crowd in the palm of her hand. Her big, brassy singing voice does much to bring home the songs that are catchy, clever and funny. Once in a great while a note wandered away from her but it soon found its way home and the forgiving audience was too dazzled to care, embracing these small missteps as part of the complete package.
At the end of the night the evening is anthemic, the mood – uplifting. “Nothing much happened in that cell,” she concludes … “just enough to change everything“. And by the end, as we see the journey that took her from one end of the cell to the other, we value our various freedoms a little bit more. Nothing about life is easy. Transgendered life – even less. But if you can hold your head high and come out the other side with your dignity in tact, your sense of self fortified, and the ability to swirl it all into a musical … then you’re golden.
Busted: The Musical ran Mondays September 26 through October 10 at The Laurie Beechman Theatre (407 W. 42nd St, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues) for a limited run.
BUSTED: The Musical Written and performed by Bianca Leigh Directed by Theatre Askew artistic director Tim Cusack Original songs by Tony-winner Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), Obie-winners Taylor Mac (The Lily’s Revenge) and Ellen Maddow (The Talking Band), Jeff Domoto (Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor), Super Buddha (Debbie Harry, Scissor Sisters), Matty Pritchard and Isam Rum (The Din), and William TN Hall. The production, which was workshopped last year under the title A Night at the Tombs, features musical direction by William TN Hall and costuming by Arthur Oliver.