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‘The Green Heart,’ a Charles Busch musical, opens off-Broadway

April 10, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) - ``If you can’t trust a trust fund then who can you trust,″ sobs spendthrift William Graham after learning his fortune has been depleted and his beloved charge accounts closed.

What to do? What to do? Find a wealthy wife, of course, and then do her in.

His plan of action forms the heart of ``The Green Heart,″ a giddy, goofy little musical cartoon that has absolutely nothing on its mind except a good, giggly time.

The show, which Manhattan Theater Club has opened at off-Broadway’s Variety Arts Theater, features a canny, campy book by drag diva Charles Busch, a more than serviceable score by Rusty Magee and three terrific female performers in roles Busch himself could play in high style.

The musical was inspired by the same source that produced the Elaine May-Walter Matthau movie ``The Green Leaf.″ In Busch’s stage version, William finds the answer to his monetary prayers in a shy botanist named Henrietta Lowell. Henrietta has a green thumb and an even greener financial portfolio.

Still, the unrepentant playboy plans to keep seeing his German mistress, Uta, while plotting to kill his bride. His plans are suspected, particularly by the intended victim’s housekeeper, Mrs. Tragger, and by a lawyer, McPherson, who also has matrimonial designs on Henrietta.

Busch supplies his customary, crackling one-liners, jokes that can be delivered with a sneer, a snigger or a smile.

What gives ``The Green Heart″ a special lift are its performers. They pounce on the material with gusto. Alison Fraser, as William’s Teutonic girlfriend, spritzes her consonants as she gleefully urges her boyfriend to commit the bloodthirsty deed. A raucous Ruth Williamson plays the housekeeper from hell. She is overdone, unstoppable and utterly divine.

Then there is the wonderful Karen Trott as the forlorn Henrietta, a sweet sad sack of a woman. The character’s goodness is a nice antidote to the avarice that swirls around her.

And Trott is a gifted musical comedy performer, superbly delivering ``Henrietta’s Elegy,″ the woman’s lament to her late benefactor. The smart, sure and genuinely witty number is Magee’s best work in the show. There are several other memorable tunes, including a surprisingly wistful title song that Trott sells in an affecting, low-key manner.

The men are not as overwhelming, yet David Andrew MacDonald manages to make William’s relentless narcissism very funny, and John Ellison Conlee, as the rotund, greedy barrister, possesses a strong voice that barrels through Magee’s music.

James Noone’s designs for the small Variety Arts stage are surprisingly lavish. From a tropical island to a cabin in the Adirondacks, his sets have a sense of humor.

Director Kenneth Elliott, a longtime Busch collaborator, never lets things meander for too long. His staging is fast and efficient, letting these particularly adept performers deliver their comic wares with considerable flair. ``The Green Heart″ is good, silly fun.

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