Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Legend of Georgia McBride

The MCC Theater’s latest offering, The Legend of Georgia McBride, shows drag queens at work: those who dress up as a sparkly symbol of protest against discrimination; those who are just born for a life of high heels and sequined evening gowns; and those who find that their best male selves lie in the lip-synced songs of a woman.

Matt McGrath, Keith Nobbs and Dave Thomas Brown. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

When Casey (Dave Thomas Brown) discovers his Elvis impersonator act at Cleo’s, a backwater bar in Florida, will be replaced by a drag queen show he only agrees to stay on as bartender because there is a baby on the way for him and his wife, Jo (Afton Williamson). It’s the same reason he dresses up in drag to do an Edith Piaf number when a regular cast member, Rexy Nervosa (Keith Nobbs), goes on a bender. He awkwardly moves through the song, coached by drag queen extraordinaire Tracy Mills (Matt McGrath, who also appeared in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts premiere). By the third night, though, Casey is something of an expert impersonator and he find he enjoys performing as much as the money, a fact he cannot confess to his wife.

This gem of a show pleasantly explores the nature of self and the transformative power of fantasy, and while no surprising insight is revealed, the characters seem real and likeable. As their personal epiphanies are slowly unveiled, an unexpected emotional punch underlines the simplicity of playwright Matthew Lopez’s plot. Plus, the performances, directed by Mike Donahue (who also directed the show’s 2014 Denver premiere) are just oh-so much fun to watch.

Seeing Casey transform from bad Elvis to country vixen, mouthing tunes by hit makers such as Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, is pure entertainment. If Thomas Brown wasn’t slated to play Michael on the first national tour of The Bridges of Madison County this fall, he could give up conventional acting and become a full-time drag queen … if he wanted.  Equally terrific is the supporting cast, especially McGrath, whose exuberant sweetness always hints at the steel that lies beneath the middle-aged queen.

The production staff utilizes all the assets of the Lucille Lortel Theatre’s small space—transforming it seamlessly from Casey’s apartment to Cleo’s dressing room and stage, with all the glittery upgrades as the drag show gains momentum. There’s no curtain; even as the audience enters the theatre, the show begins with the staff in headsets, moving on and off  the stage as they roll in dressing racks and check the goods in the refrigerator.  

The scenic design by Donyale Werle exposes a tired watering hole with simple details, such as the shining, mismatched holiday lights that add a bit of sparkle, despite the insinuation that this establishment is the type that leaves their decorations out all year. Adding to the glitz and fantasy of the drag show are costumes by Anita Yavich and makeup/wig design by Jason Hayes, which transform Dave Thomas Brown into a true star and, as his pregnant wife eventually laments, a woman prettier than her.

Its New York premiere may be short-lived (August 20-October 4) but hopefully, this sweet show with sharp dialogue will come back again.

(Press tickets, orchestra).

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