By Stanford Friedman
The Legend of Georgia McBride is a study in transformations. A dingy Florida panhandle nightclub, and its dingy owner, discover the joys of glitter, while a young man finds his inner woman. But the most notable transformation of the night belongs to playwright Matthew Lopez and his meandering script. This drawn out one-act starts off forced, then it puts on heels, tosses the plot aside, and becomes a lively musical, before finally turning a corner to become a surprisingly ambitious drama. Structurally, the show is a hot mess. But with several fine performances, some delicious musical lip syncing, and a poignant theme, it is a lovable mess as well.
Casey (Dave Thomas Brown) is just your everyday Elvis impersonator trying to do right by his nightclub manager, Eddie (Wayne Duvall), and his hardworking wife, Jo (Afton Williamson). But then the rent check bounces, Jo gets pregnant and Eddie is set to replace him with Tracy and Rexy (Matt McGrath, Keith Nobbs) a pair of veteran drag queens. Casey sees no other choice than to man up and put on a dress. Thus Georgia McBride is born. At first, it feels as if Lopez is going for a Full Monty, a nice guy performing a risquée feat for the sake of his family. Then, as Casey keeps his addictive, burgeoning and profitable career a secret from Jo, it becomes more a tale of breaking bad (or breaking drag). Then the story line simply goes on hiatus. Rexy exits, and Casey and Tracy delve into a sequence of charming musical numbers that mark the passing months and their growing success.
By the time we are brought back to reality, the stakes have changed. Rexy is back and no longer a comic foil, but rather, a smartly conceived spokeswoman for the history of crossdressing. And Casey is in crisis: in love with his wife while in love with being a woman; a successful drag star without ever having paid the price of his peers. “You have no idea what it means to me,” he tells Rexy. To which, Rexy knowingly responds, “You have no idea what it means.”
Brown is not even a little believable as an Elvis impersonator, which luckily makes sense within the confines of the play. But as Georgia he is stunning, with a natural femininity and subtle, hilarious facial gestures. The plot twist of Georgia being a reinvented Elvis in a dress lasts all of about two minutes, in favor of a series of fun costumes and song stylings much more queenly than The King would ever dare. A very quick learner, Georgia is every bit as entertaining as Tracy, whom McGrath plays to perfection, throwing off Bette Davis one liners and, in the evening’s best scene, schooling Casey on finding one’s self as he stands there tired, worn and out of drag makeup for the only time of the night. As Jo, Williamson is almost too good, finding complexities in a role that Lopez does not fully explore. She would need a whole play unto herself to deal with everything on her plate. Somehow, director Mike Donahue keeps Jo’s, and everyone else’s, plate spinning long enough to reach a happy sit-com ending that finds Casey surrounded by babies, best friends and the kind of make-believe heterosexual bliss that can only come from passionately kissing one’s wife while looking prettier than she does.
The Legend of Georgia McBride By Matthew Lopez; directed by Mike Donahue.
WITH: Dave Thomas Brown (Casey), Wayne Duvall (Eddie), Matt McGrath (Tracy), Keith Nobbs (Rexy/Jason) and Afton Williamson (Jo).
Choreography by Paul McGill; sets by Donyale Werle; costumes by Anita Yavich; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Jill B C Du Boff; makeup and wig design by Jason Hayes; production manager, B. D. White; production stage manager, Lori Lundquist. Presented by MCC Theater, Robert LuPone, Bernard Telsey and William Cantler, artistic directors; Blake West, executive director. At the Lucille Lortel Theater, 866-811-4111, http://mcctheater.org. Through Sept. 27. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.