I knew the show was about drag queens, but otherwise I tried to know as little as possible about the plot going in. OK, and I also knew it had been previously performed at MCC to some success. Joined by my friends Karen, a Mexicana actress working in Hollywood, and Jorge, whom I had studied with at NYU, Sunday evening we set up camp in the house right second row of the Gil Cates Theatre for Matthew Lopez's The Legend of Georgia McBride.
So here's the thing. The people sitting in front of and behind us would testify that yes, we were having a kick-ass time at the show. It's a riot, filled with priceless drag queen shade mixed with hick-town humor and infectious dance numbers. I mean, it was like Magic Mike meets RuPaul's Drag Race meets The Simple Life and how could you not love that? When we left, I felt great, I was still laughing probably. But I couldn't keep from asking myself, could this story stand alone without all the brilliant lines/humor?
I'll get back to that. Because on the other hand, there were two things that I really, really liked about this show. I have surprised myself, because typically I would find this storyline so beyond ridiculous, but the acting, storytelling and humor are just so sweet and gratifying, that I miraculous give it the pass. In The Legend of Georgia McBride, Casey (played by Andrew Burnap) and his wife Jo (played by Nija Okoro--I knew I remembered her from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the Taper) are expecting. They live in the Panhandle, Panama Beach to be exact, where funds are not easy to come by and the school district sucks. Jo works at a blue collar restaurant or something and Casey works doing an act as an Elvis impersonator at a local dive. Which brings me to why I loved this show reason number one: #poorpeopleproblems! After a very long season of mostly #richpeopleproblems plays on my theatre-going roster, it was so refreshing to see a play where people were actually worried about finances and wether or not they could afford their new child. Seriously, even in films lately, I'm just over upper class, hipster nouveau "struggle." Less is more struggle. Casey and Jo are barely scraping by as it is, they're about two months late on their rent and to top it off, Casey's act gets booted because it's just not bringing in enough customers. So how does Eddie (Nick Searcy), the ho-hum white trash bartender bring in funds to keep the bar afloat? Bring in his fabulous cousin Bobbie's drag queen act, of course! Before you can say Barbara Streisand, Miss Tracy Mills (Matt McGrath) is running the show and killing it on stage leading to a major cash flow for the bar. Her act is a riot, bringing in massive crowds, because WHO KNEW that that this little dive bar in the middle of the rural, primarily right-wing Florida Panhandle attracted so many drag queen friendly audiences?! Yes, plot-wise, this was very unrealistic to me, however I was having such a good time that I was willing to remove those questions from my mind for an hour and forty minutes.
Yep, you guessed it, due to unforeseen circumstances, one evening Casey is forced to walk on for one of the queens, when she proves unwakable from her drunken stupor. His impromptu Edith Piaf number ends up being a hit, leading him to discover his huge hidden talent for queendom, allowing him to rake in the cash like he's never seen before. But oh no, he doesn't have the balls to tell Jo he's suddenly the town's hottest drag queen so of course he lies to her and the conflict rolls out from there. I've already been way to generous with synopsis for my typical write-up style, but I had to in order to reach reason number two for loving this show: a concrete-enough ending! I'm sorry contemporary theatre; I am sick of open ended endings. I've had it up to HERE with leaving performances and not knowing A) what happened or B) how I'm supposed to feel. So it was extremely satisfying being able to walk out of the theatre full of love and acceptance with a concrete-enough idea of where the characters' futures were headed. Jorge, who works in television production, said he could even see the show becoming a sitcom or similar series.
As a matter of fact, Jorge and I stood outside in front of the theatre discussing the show in true theatre nerd fashion for quite a while after it had ended. We both agreed that the performances were quite strong. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that the ferocity and fabulousity behind his Tracy Mills makes Matt McGrath my favorite. I hope there's at least an Ovation nomination in there somewhere for him. The show has you, laughing the majority of the time and you're dancing in your seat for a good amount too. The music selections are wonderful and I definitely took some time to collect some on a Spotify playlist after the performance. However, we both agreed that the show needed an intermission, and that there was already an ideal spot in the play to place one. Jorge mentioned that since seeing a two hour musical void of an intermission at the Public Theatre a few summers ago, he had noticed the non-intermission production trending in New York, and not necessarily for the better. I can see why: people have short attention spans, you don't want to create any opportunity to leave, and you have a one-and-done system. However, in the case of this production, I would hope that no one would have plans to leave, people would get a nice little stretch and drink break (which also pairs nicely with this show) and time to hypothesize with their companions where the show was headed in the second act. We also felt that although Larry Powell (I'm also a steady fan of his from a number of Taper performances) does a fantastic job in both of his roles, the cousin Jason character was not crucial to the storytelling.
So yes, the show is ridiculous but it's a lot of fun and theatrically, I think it works. Would the show be as exciting without the humor, probably not, but that's ok because that just happens to be this show's crowning tiara. And you ain't no queen without a tiara. The characters need the humor to live through their hells, as emphasized by a gripping scene between Casey and the off-duty Bobbie. I was moved by the characters, who all had clear objectives and obstacles. So my takeaway from this show as a playwright is that it is possible to pull off this combination. I think I can be really serious in my writing a lot of the time. This show was refreshing, in the intensity of the world we live in and also the intensity placed on writers trying to prove something in a super serious, meaningful way that is supposed to land them a Pulitzer Prize. It doesn't have to work that way.
The west coast premiere of The Legend of Georgia McBride runs at the Geffen Playhouse through May 14. This is definitely a fun, feel-good show, and usually I'm not into that, so the fact that I'm telling you to go should mean something : )