A straight man discovers his inner drag queen in Matthew Lopez‘s gender-bending comedy, The Legend of Georgia McBride, being given its New York premiere by off-Broadway’s MCC Theater. Featuring enough amusingly bitchy one-liners and energetic musical numbers to be a genuine crowd-pleaser, the play is frothy to the extreme, a show for people who find Mamma Mia! heavy lifting. But its relentless silliness is sweet and amiable enough to make it go down easy.
Set in Panama City in the Florida Panhandle, the comedy centers on good-hearted slacker Casey (Dave Thomas Brown), trying to make ends meet by performing as an Elvis impersonator at Cleo’s, a seedy beachside bar run by the financially hard-pressed Eddie (Wayne Duvall). When Casey bounces a rent check buying pizza, and his wife Jo (Afton Williamson) suddenly announces she’s pregnant, their situation goes from dire to desperate. And things get even worse when Eddie informs Casey that he’s dropping the Elvis act in favor of a drag routine performed by his cousin Tracy (Matt McGrath) and his — excuse me, her — equally flamboyant friend Rexy (Keith Nobbs), whose stage name is Anorexia Nervosa.
Casey reluctantly stays on as bartender, but when Rexy shows up for work drunk one night he’s recruited to take her place performing an Edith Piaf number. Quickly coming up with the stage name Georgia McBride — inspired by the state in which his mother was born and the last name of the first girl he kissed — Casey receives a crash course in drag performing from Tracy, which, it turns out, is all about attitude.
At first his performance is dismal, but Casey discovers that he has a nascent talent and quickly adapts to his new persona, becoming a local sensation, lip-synching to the likes of Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette. His renewed joy in performing, however, is offset by his determination to keep his new identity a secret from Jo and, well, you can guess the rest of the plot from here.
Making a major stylistic departure from his previous work The Whipping Man — a searing post-Civil War era drama that’s become a favorite on the regional theater circuit — Lopez demonstrates an equally stellar gift for amusing dialogue and farcical humor. While not all the one-liners land — Rexy’s comment, “I’ve been raped in better places than this,” upon setting foot in Cleo’s being one unfortunate example — the ratio of hits to misses is admirable.
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Brown is boyishly appealing in the title role, tearing into his drag routines with gusto and looking gorgeous as his female persona. McGrath is even better as his drag queen mentor, investing his portrayal with equal amounts of hilarious bitchery and hard-won dignity. The supporting players are also impressive, particularly Nobbs, who doubles as the married couple’s good-old-boy landlord.
Director Mike Donahue‘s staging is sleek and fast-paced; set designer Donyale Werle has expertly transformed the stage into a rundown dive bar, complete with Christmas lights and neon signs; Anita Yavich‘s costumes and Jason Hayes‘ wigs are amusingly over-the-top; and Paul McGill‘s choreography of the drag routines would pass muster in any nightclub.
Despite its earnest message of tolerance, The Legend of Georgia McBride is too lightweight to register as anything more than a mild diversion. But it’s highly entertaining nonetheless.
Cast: Dave Thomas Brown, Wayne Duvall, Matt McGrath, Keith Nobbs, Afton Williamson
Playwright: Matthew Lopez
Director: Mike Donahue
Choreographer: Paul McGill
Set designer: Donyale Werle
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff
Presented by MCC Theater