Tuesday, September 26, 2017

More Than Fun: Humorously & Poignantly Debunking Presumptions, 'The Legend of Georgia McBride' Is Never a Drag -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Legend of Georgia McBridge
a recent play by Matthew Lopez
directed by Lauren Shouse
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru October 22

Theater, at it best, not only shrewdly reflects our world, it shines new light--while affecting our way of thinking.

While the relatively new and rather comedic, The Legend of Georgia McBride, by Matthew Lopez may seem entirely disparate from the last play I saw--a stark take on Arthur Miller's classic drama, A View From the Bridge--I found congruent potency and resonance in both.

The brilliant, intense staging of the latter at Chicago's Goodman Theatre--see my review here--reiterated my belief that one's own frailties, foibles, fears and frustrations should not manifest in the hatred, demonizing or victimization of others.

And in providing a glimpse into the world of drag queens--which the show's straight, married, southern protagonist unsuspectingly joins in the guise of the title character--the often LOL funny Legend of Georgia McBride powerfully reaffirms the folly of making assumptions about anyone we don't know (or even those we do).

Playwright Lopez, whose The Whipping Man I very much enjoyed at Northlight in 2013, demonstrates his dexterity with a play far different from that intense post-Civil War drama about slaves and Southern Jews, although both works reflect well on the impropriety of preconceived notions.

And though the premise of The Legend of Georgia McBride isn't quite as unique as that past play--many viewers may conjure up "La Cage Aux Folles," "Kinky Boots," "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," "The Full Monty" and other such musicals, though this technically isn't one--not only is it uproariously funny and rather touching, Lopez' fine script renders comparisons (and questions of originality) largely moot.

And though there are some imperfect aspects--including, perhaps, the depth with which he explores the world of drag and practitioners of it--I found it one of the better new plays I've seen in awhile.

Given a raucous, instant standing ovation, the audience on opening night seemed to agree.

As The Legend of Georgia McBride opens, Casey (an excellent Nate Santana) is working as an Elvis impersonator--though a bit too young and fit to be convincing in a "Fat Elvis" jumpsuit--at, perhaps not coincidentally, a Panama City, Florida nightclub that is having trouble attracting patrons.

Before the club's shlubby owner, Eddie (an ever-reliable Keith Kupferer) has a chance to tell Casey about a change in direction, a pair of drag queens appear to take over as the new nightly entertainment.

As Miss Tracy Mills, Sean Blake--who made for a fantastic Sammy Davis Jr. a couple years ago--is likewise superb here, while Jeff Kurysz nicely splits his stage time between drag queen Rexy and (as a separate character) friend & landlord to Casey and his wife Jo (Leslie Ann Sheppard, rather likable in an underwritten role).

In truth, not much happens in The Legend of Georgia McBride that you don't see coming:

Casey is pissed at losing his Elvis gig, gets unexpectedly enlisted for an initial appearance in drag over his objections, becomes much better & accepting of it and keeps his new, well-paying job under wraps (so to speak).

Casey's secretiveness even well after warming to performing as Georgia McBride--his state of birth + the surname of the first person he kissed--makes for somewhat hackneyed interaction with Jo, who the script forces to react in ways unceremoniously akin to many a character learning of another's secret pursuits.

Though I think Lauren Shouse does a nice job directing this one-act piece, the need to juxtapose several drag numbers--as Kupferer's Eddie notes the passage of time in knowingly hammy holiday outfits--sacrifices some narrative depth for overt entertainment value, with Santana, Blake and Kurysz each delivering fine performances referencing Edith Piaf, Madonna, Tina Turner, Shania Twain and many others. (The recorded musical selections add much to the enjoyment.)

The Legend of Georgia McBride has already run regionally and off-Broadway to some acclaim, but it's possible considerable improvements can be made, particularly with the character of Jo and some continuity & plausibility concerns. 

Not that I would assume all drag queens--which the show's program defines as those "who perform femininity theatrically"--to be homosexual, but Lopez (who happens to be gay) makes for some interesting twists by having Casey be straight.

While adroitly learning how to squeeze into the trappings of faux womanhood, he has some nice discussions with Tracy and Rexy--who are gay--about drag personas, his playing a role vs. their (sadly) assault-inducing realities and the repercussions of hiding, finding and revealing one's true self.

While I can see how my synopsis, with some critiquing of the play's flaws, may seemingly not quite add up to a @@@@1/2 rating, what I can't give proper justice to in writing is just how funny the show often is--I'm not one to laugh out loud much, and I did--and how delightfully many of the drag performances are delivered.

Whatever The Legend of Georgia McBride's imperfections, it thoroughly entertained me and had genuine impact on my way of thinking.

Like great theater should.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Thanks! I thought this piece was particularly well written.