By Josh Flanders
The Legend of Georgia McBride (about a down-and-out, baby-on-the-way Elvis impersonator-turned-drag-queen) is a Priscilla Queen of the Desert meets The Full Monty kind of experience, with all the ups (and downs) of the time period that spawned them – the 1990s. Like these films, this play exposes its audience to a world both foreign and intriguing, with an amazing cast, stunning costumes and songs that examine the complexity of gender with humor and song.
The show, now playing at Northlight Theatre, centers around Casey, deftly and energetically played by Nate Santana, who follows his passion of being an Elvis impersonator in the Florida panhandle. His wife Jo, played with a sweet humor and lively spunk by Leslie Ann Sheppard, is holding down a “real” job. But when Casey’s hip-swinging Elvis fails to bring in the crowds, the bar owner, Eddie, hilariously deadpanned by Keith Kupferer (like the guy having the least fun at a Jimmy Buffett concert) takes a risk and hires two drag queens to replace him. And guess what; hilarity ensues.
Enter Miss Tracy Mills and Rexy, who (somewhat predictably) show up to breathe life back into this sad bar, as well as into Casey’s life, though not as he’d expect. When Casey learns his Elvis is being asked to leave the building, he is livid, until Rexy gets too drunk to perform, which is when Casey has a Back-to-the-Future-moment and is coerced to fill in for Rexy, a-la Marty McFly filling in for Chuck Berry’s cousin. As it turns out, Casey is good, to which Tracy responds, “We’re both surprised,” and thus begins Casey’s journey to explore his feminine side.
Playwright Matthew Lopez’s dialogue is thoughtful, honest and funny. Rachel Laritz’s costumes – shoes! dresses! wigs! – are all off-the-charts fabulous. And the choreography by Chris Carter does a wonderful job of highlighting the tremendous acting talent onstage. But it’s Sean Blake’s remarkable performance as Tracy Mills that steals the show, and the drag shows. Blake is totally mesmerizing on stage, and his fantastic voice, sharp humor, self-assuredness, powerful presence and love help nurture a sense of belonging to the wandering artistic souls of the theater, helping to mold this group of misfits into a real family.
Jeff Kurysz is wonderfully transformative, playing both Rexy (an over-the-top Latino drag queen) and Jason, Casey’s surprisingly thoughtful and sensitive dude-bro friend, whose only giveaway that he’s also playing a drag queen is his perfectly shaped eyebrows (costumes, slap some Dukakis-brows on his bro character!).
Rexy’s is the only character, other than Casey, to have a clear character arc, and Rexy’s character symbolically represents the history and traditions of drag. In an otherwise powerful speech to Casey, only touches briefly on this rich segment of American history. It is a speech that serves to bring the cis men in the audience along with something that is not heteronormative without really educating the audience. The program does attempt to educate the audience with a wonderful clear history of drag and list of “terms you should know.” The playwright seems to be aware that he is pandering to a mostly straight, white audience.
While the plot provides little surprises and audiences know where this story will go, it is the journey that makes Georgia McBride so much musical fun. When Santana’s Casey, after several very funny attempts, finally nails his Edith Piaf drag persona on stage, the audience goes wild, with genuine goosebumps on every arm. From Tracy’s coaching and advice, to his hysterical comebacks and casting of shade, the blossoming relationship between these two men, Casey and Tracy, propel the energy of this story forward and keep everyone engaged.
But be clear, this is Casey’s story and not Tracy’s. Unfortunately, Tracy lacks much character development, and only acts to help ease Casey into the world of drag, making him a kind of “magical negro” – a term popularized by filmmaker Spike Lee to mean the stock character who comes to the aid of the white protagonist, possessing some special insight, often not changing or developing as a character at all. The characters in this play all externally seek money and security, but on a deeper level are seeking family and acceptance.
Casey’s journey is a metaphor for straight men embracing their femininity, (a ridiculous notion if one considers dancing in white sequins “masculine,” or male sports fans dressing like their favorite player for that matter, and dancing in drag “feminine”). Drag is only one boa away from Elvis, and in many ways, male expressions of passion are the same, gay or straight. Instead, this story centers around straight white men and their comfort which, especially in Chicago, seems a tad bit insulting at this point.
This is best illustrated in the sweet relationship between Casey and his wife, Jo who face real-life issues of finding employment, pursing dreams and supporting a family. Leslie Ann Sheppard plays Jo with real vivacity and honesty, supporting and understanding her husband’s pursuing his dream. But what is Jo’s dream? It does not seem to matter to the playwright, as she exists only to support her husband’s dream. In fact, the moral seems to be that a man can follow his passion as a woman, easier than a woman can as a woman. (Spoiler: Jo ends up producing Casey’s drag show in the end, literally and metaphorically supporting his dream “from the wings” all while raising two babies at the same time, and somehow this all pays for their lives.)
The Legend of Georgia McBride is a play that feels like it belongs in the 1990s when it was cool to have a diverse cast for diversity sake without worrying about character arcs. Unfortunately, that is lazy writing for 2017, and all men, no matter what their gender expression, still have issues of sexism to wrestle with.
Northlight Theatre presents “The Legend of Georgia McBride” through October 22 at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Michael Brosilow.