Directed by Mike Donahue
Choreography by Paul McGill
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
With only one glitch (more about that later in the review), Matthew Lopez’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a high-energy, high-octane song and dance extravaganza that plays with exotic and explosive exuberance and verve on the stage of the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan’s West Village. It is a heartwarming story of courage and acceptance and it is about the ongoing need to reinvent oneself, do whatever needs to be done to support and protect loved ones, and learn to confront the “ghosts” from the past that haunt the present and interfere with self-realization and self-actualization. This play is more than exhilarating drag performances – although these are exquisite – and glitzy costumes. The title character (Georgia McBride) makes a legendry leap into very unfamiliar territory to regain his sense of purpose and his determination to accept who he is.
Casey’s (played with a sincere ambivalence by Dave Thomas Brown) gig as an Elvis impersonator at Cleo’s on Panama City Beach, Florida is not drawing a large audience and his boss terminates his employment. Casey plays to a maximum of seven patrons or sometimes just to the emcee Eddie (played with appropriate clueless warmth by Wayne Duvall) and Eddie has booked his cousin Bobby to replace Casey. Bobby, it turns out, is an elegant drag queen (Miss Tracy Mills played with exactitude and sheer perfection by Matt McGrath) who shows up at Cleo’s with her sidekick Rexy (played with a tough exterior belying a very vulnerable core by Broadway veteran Keith Nobbs) ready to perform their drag act. Casey and his wife Jo (played with a confused but loving innocence by Afton Williamson) are pregnant and two months behind on rent so not being employed is not an option for the young actor.
Tracy decides to keep Casey on as a bartender and, after Rexy is unable to perform (for a chronically recurring reason), Casey agrees to cover for Rexy for one performance. Predictably (but still thrilling to see Casey’s transformation), Casey teams up with Miss Tracy and becomes a success as drag performer Georgia McBride (his drag name is a combination of this mother’s birthplace and the last name of the first girl he kissed!). Casey does not tell his wife about his new gig but she finds out after deciding to visit him at his place of employment and subsequently kicks him out of their apartment. It is at this point of deciding whether or not to quit the new work he loves that the climax of the play occurs.
Under Mike Donahue’s meticulous direction, the ensemble cast gives each of their characters authenticity and believability and their clearly defined conflicts drive an engaging plot from beginning to end. The audience will be surprised and gratified by how Casey and Jo ultimately solve the dilemma of Casey’s employment at Cleo’s. The drag performances embedded in the paly are splendid and the audience literally roars as Casey and Tracy portray the circuit’s favorites performed by the roster of iconic divas. To say more about the performances would spoil the blessed beauty of what occurs on the stage of the Lucille Lortel. Paul McGill’s choreography is pure genius and the audience can scarcely remain in their seats at times watching his extraordinary work.
Now for that aforementioned “glitch.” Not all men who have performed drag are gay. Rexy’s lambasting of Casey when he understands he might have to stop doing something that he not only loves but has helped him discover who he is – performing drag – is completely out of place and inappropriate. Why the playwright thought he needed to add a rant about knowing the history of gay culture and being able to recite the canon of iconic drag queens is not only puzzling but it seriously detracts from the overall impact of the otherwise brilliant musical. Additionally, Rexy’s lack of acceptance of Casey flies in the face of his own need for acceptance and the struggle for acceptance the LGBT community has engaged in before and following Stonewall. This concern in no way discredits Mr. Nobbs’ performance in this scene: he delivers this monologue with brilliance and passion as he does elsewhere when, as Casey and Jo’s landlord Jason, he confesses his deep love for a “gender nonconformist” after high school, hoping to assuage (unsuccessfully) Jo’s fury at Casey’s decision to perform in drag at Cleo’s.
This concern does not detract from the overall success and enjoyment of Matthew Lopez’s creative and engaging play and would be less than prudent for to take advantage of the recent extension and see “The Legend of Georgia McBride” before its close on Sunday October 11. 2015.