Matthew Lopez is one lucky playwright.
His comedy, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” has a tissue-thin plot, borrows nearly all of its humor from familiar drag-queen routines, and for its few moments of emotional depth, makes use of dialogue straight from the 1982 film “Tootsie.”
However, the TheaterWorks production, extended by popular demand through April 29, has quite a few secret weapons: Ralph Perkins’ choreography; Paul Tate dePoo III’s set, which re-creates the entire theatre space as a down-at-heel night club; Jamison Stern as Miss Tracy Mills; and—above all—director Rob Ruggiero. Because of these artists (and terrific performances by Austin Thomas and Nik Alexander), the show is not only great fun, but also a fascinating example of artistic collaboration.
The premise is simple: Casey (Austin Thomas)—very young, very straight, very broke, and very much wanting to provide for his pregnant wife—finds that his boss at Cleo’s bar (a nicely understated J. Tucker Smith) is replacing his Elvis impersonation with two drag queens (Jamison Stern and Nik Alexander) to liven up the place. Miss Tracy Mills (Stern) is the driving force, and Rexy (Alexander) has trouble holding her liquor. So when Rexy passes out just before her Edith Piaf number, Casey is pressed into service—meaning he is pressed, and stuffed, into the accouterments of a drag queen and pushed onstage to lip-synch—in French.
Casey finds that he likes this new role, and he brings home much more money than he ever has before. Once he discovers his alter ego—a country queen named Georgia McBride—he flings himself into creating her. The conflict? He has to find a way to tell his wife, Jo (a mis-directed Samaria Nixon-Fleming: more on that later).
Clearly, this is not much of a conflict, and that brings me back to the luck of Matthew Lopez and the marvels of artistic collaboration. Lopez has only stipulated that one specific number (the Edith Piaf piece) be used in the show; otherwise, it is up to the director and company to choose the songs. Because much of the play is made up of drag numbers, one can almost overlook the plot and focus on the fun that Ruggiero and his team have created.
These numbers, and the thrilling choreography that accompanies them, do for the script what Georgia McBride does for Casey: what would otherwise be unremarkable, at best, becomes fabulous. The drag show’s centerpiece is Miss Tracy Mills’ hilarious performance of “I Enjoy Being A Girl,” punctuated by decidedly unfeminine utterances—apparently coming unbidden from Miss Tracy’s unconscious—from such stars as Betty Davis and Joan Crawford. Stern himself, choreographer Perkins, and Ruggiero developed the number together. Miss Tracy Mills also does a remarkable turn that combines Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, also created by the artistic team.
Georgia’s songs are less showy, but they are smart choices with subtext. And Thomas’ performances are sharp, sweet, and poignant. Georgia’s first country number, Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” would be just the song Casey would choose for Georgia, since it mirrors his domestic life, with the roles reversed. Guilty Casey sings Jo’s point of view: he’s not coming home drunk, but he is coming home carrying a lie.
And even more to the point is Reba McIntyre’s hit, “Fancy,” in which Georgia voices Casey’s subconscious inner conflict (“I’m making money, but isn’t it wrong to pretend to be a woman?”). Both he and Fancy are desperate for money; both create personae out of that desperation; both make good at the expense of their loved ones. Of course “Fancy” is tragic, while “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” being a comedy, ends in another key. Still, the song reverberates, especially when Rexy, in the script’s best speech, tells Casey about the dues a real drag queen pays. For “Fancy,” Ruggiero, costumer Leon Dobkowski, and lighting designer John Lasiter, create darkly glowing surroundings, and Georgia looks both glamorous in her sexy maroon dress, and lost.
Unfortunately, Ruggiero makes his one mistake in casting and directing Samaria Nixon-Fleming as Jo. The role is under-written, but Jo could be an interesting character on several levels. Casey is a guy who doesn’t understand why it’s not a great idea to buy a pizza when you can’t even afford to pay the rent. Jo, on the other hand, is serious about their financial situation, determined to provide for their child, and firmly rooted in the practical world. These qualities make her anxious at times, but Jo has a way with a comeback (in the lines, that is) that suggests she could have the sizzle and zing of a Miss Tracy Mills.
Instead, Nixon-Fleming has been directed to be childlike, whining rather than sizzling, and there is no sexual chemistry between her and Austin Thomas: Nixon-Fleming’s Jo comes across more like a nagging older sister than a loving, if aggravated, wife. Not only is this approach an opportunity wasted—especially since the script tells us that the love story is the show’s raison d’être—but it’s troubling, since Jo is the only female onstage.
Still, this problem almost, if not quite, disappears amidst what the creative team, on stage and off stage, has uniquely created. TheaterWorks’ production of “The Legend of Georgia McBride” culminates in a glittering finale, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” The artists could not have chosen a better number, and every one of them contributes to the energy and joy.
“The Legend of Georgia McBride” continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, April 29. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworks.org.