BY DAVID KENNERLEY | These days, it seems like half the shows on New York stages grapple with issues of identity and self-acceptance. Matthew Lopez’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” about drag queens at a dive club in present-day Florida, lands squarely in that column.
The premise, about as fresh as a bowl of bar pretzels on a Monday morning, could have been lifted from a Lifetime TV movie circa 1998. Casey and Jo are young newlyweds living in a shabby apartment struggling to make ends meet. Soon after Jo discovers she’s pregnant, Casey gets axed from his job and their landlord threatens to kick them out for not paying rent.
What ever are they going to do? Starry-eyed Casey believes they can live on love.
But there’s a twist. Casey, who worked as an Elvis impersonator at a seedy club on the Panama City strip, is replaced by a drag act, and before you can say “Kinky Boots,” he gets roped into donning a wig and dress and lip synching to an old Edith Piaf recording. Tracy tutors Casey in the art of drag and names him Georgia McBride. Turns out, he’s a natural. And the money ain’t bad neither.
For those of you rolling your eyes right now, take note: This production is courtesy of the estimable MCC Theater and, under the steady hand of Mike Donahue, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a soul-stirring, crowd-pleasing winner. But be warned — the emotional intensity sneaks up on you.
The performances, which pulse with authenticity, are terrific across the board. As Casey, Dave Thomas Brown handles the transition from hapless, loving husband to fierce drag queen with confidence and flair. Even more impressive is Matt McGrath as the aging but valiant Tracy, whose trenchant drag persona evokes an irresistible mix of Joan Crawford, Eve Arden, and Rosalind Russell.
The quiet scene where a contrite Casey visits Tracy (strikingly vulnerable out of drag) at her house to apologize for being a no-show is a tender and affecting counterpoint to the sassy drag numbers, choreographed by Paul McGill.
Keith Nobbs is captivating in the dual roles of Jason the spineless, beer-swilling landlord, and Rexy the pushy drag queen (I confess I thought they were played by different actors until I checked the Playbill). Afton Williamson brings warmth and intelligence to Jo, avoiding the usual Southern trailer-trash stereotype.
Okay, maybe Wayne Duvall, as the crusty, money-grubbing club owner/ emcee, hams it up a bit, but the approach fits the material.
The convincing set of the dingy club (by Donyale Werle) is cluttered with costume racks, Elvis posters, Miller High Life and Ballantine Beer signs, tacky multicolored lights, and other junk. This dump sure could use some joy, and these spunky, sequined gals are just the ones to deliver it.
The dialogue is spiced with well-timed zingers. When Eddie gets angry because Tracy swiped his credit card to buy a bubble machine, she quips, “Well it’s not like my card was gonna work. I got a good price for it on eBay. Only used once at a Ted Cruz fundraiser.”
Lopez (see Christopher Murray’s interview with the playwright) grounds the perky comedy in emotional truth, touching on the politics of drag and honoring its heritage. Resentful of Casey’s cavalier attitude, Rexy lashes out at him. “Drag ain’t a hobby, baby. Drag ain’t a night job. Drag is a protest. Drag is a raised fist inside a sequined glove. Drag is a lot of things, baby, but drag is not for sissies.”
Are there maudlin moments? Of course there are. But witnessing Casey transform before our eyes into a stunning chanteuse, coming to grips with who he really is, helps us forgive any excessive sentimentality.
My theater companion and I were so enthralled that after the show we headed around the corner from the Lortel Theatre to Boots & Saddle Drag Lounge, where equally talented drag performers have found their true voice and aren’t afraid to share it, loud and proud.
THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA McBRIDE | MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel Theatre,121 Christopher St., btwn. Bleecker & Bedford Sts. | Through Oct. 11: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $69-$99; mcctheater.org | One hr., 35 mins., no intermission