Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Confession of Lily Dare
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Review by Patrick Thomas

Adam KuveNiemann and J. Conrad Frank
Photo by Lois Tema
It's rare these days to see a truly old-fashioned melodrama. Though "melodrama" is often used pejoratively these days, its high drama and sensationalism can pack a strong punch if one is willing to leave modern sensibilities at home and just roll with the silliness of it all. The Confession of Lily Dare, which opened this past weekend in a New Conservatory Theatre Center production, gives you that rare chance to see a true melodrama.

Penned by Charles Busch (he of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Die, Mommie, Die!, Red Scare on Sunset and, most famously, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife), you'd expect The Confession of Lily Dare to be packed with snarky wit, bitchy ripostes, and camp galore. While there is enough of all three to make the show a pleasantly entertaining couple of hours, it doesn't overflow with the level of humor we've come to expect from Busch.

Fortunately for the NCTC audience, J. Conrad Frank plays the titular Lily with such over-the-top ferocity that I am willing to forgive Busch for coming up a little short on the bon mots. When he first appears as the young Lily, fresh from her convent school, seeking her Aunt Rosalie (who happens to be the madam of a Barbary Coast brothel in early 20th century San Francisco), Frank plays the innocent schoolgirl with such a virginal guilelessness that you can hardly wait to see how she is corrupted by act two. "I try to find the good in everything and everyone," she says. She's such a naïf that when it's mentioned that someone has caught "the clap," Lily bats her big eyes and says, "The clap–do you mean applause?" True to the melodramatic tradition, it's clear Lily will not stay innocent for long, but will still remain true to herself, no matter what life throws at her or to what depths she must stoop to survive.

The play opens with Lily's two best friends, Mickey (Adam KuveNiemann), the brothel's piano player, and Emmy Lou (Sakura Nakahara), one of Aunt Rosalie's top working girls, visiting Lily's grave, then flashing back to Lily's arrival at the brothel. (Wearing a stunning plaid outfit designed by David Glamamore that looks like something Shirley Temple could have worn–and is even more ridiculously appropriate on the six-foot± Frank. And that's just the first of many fantastic costumes by designer Ruby V Sogliuzzo.)

Lily settles in at the bordello, and though originally forbidden by her aunt from interacting with the clientele, she manages to befriend two regulars: Louis (Kalon Thibodeaux), the brothel's bookkeeper; and Casino Lambert, a shady Barbary Coast mover and shaker. She more than befriends Louis, who impregnates Lily before dying in the 1906 earthquake, which forces Lily to give her daughter up for adoption.

With the brothel destroyed, Lily must set out, though not on her own: she brings Mickey and Emmy Lou along with her. "It's easy to find work for a piano player who can do ragtime and a hooker who does anal."

Just when you think things can't go more over the top, Busch punches the accelerator on his melodrama machine: Casino transforms Lily into Mandalay, a nightclub singer; the daughter Lily gave up becomes an opera star; and Casino wheedles her into taking the rap for him on some stolen diamonds. Not to worry, Lily will rise again, this time as Treasure Jones, a madam of her own house of ill repute.

Although things drag a little in the second act, and some of Frank's fellow performers are lost in the shadow of his performance, his channeling of the spirit of actors such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich make The Confession of Lily Dare worth catching. His mannered continental pronunciations of "avalanche" (ah-vah-lonsch"), "feminine" (fey-mah-neen), and "really" (raallly) sprinkled throughout the dialogue never fail to elicit roars, so perfectly does Frank appropriate/mangle them. Frank continues to grow as a performer, and even if his drag persona Katya Smirnoff-Skyy leaves you cold (as it does me), it is marvelous to witness how he laps up the cream in Busch's tart melodrama.

The Confession of Lily Dare runs through June 1, 2023, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, Walker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$65. For tickets and information, please visit or call 415-861-8972.