The Hartford theatre scene has been a welcoming one for playwright Mathew Lopez. Over the past few seasons, the writer has been represented at Hartford Stage with three of his plays, “The Whipping Man”, “Somewhere” and “Reverberation”. Currently at Hartford’s intimate Theaterworks is Lopez’s drag sitcom with music, “The Legend of Georgia McBride”. The playwright has never written the same play twice.
Casey (a boyish Austin Thomas) is eking out a living working as an Elvis impersonator at a seedy club in a small Florida town. When the club owner (J. Tucker Smith) brings in his cousin and professional drag queen Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern, a hoot) to help boost business (an unlikely assumption), Casey finds himself out of his singing job and relegated to bartender. Meanwhile Tracy’s friend, Rexy (Nik Alexander), a flamboyant performer specializing in Edith Piaf, has also joined the club for a double-bill of drag. Rexy, however, is soon passed out drunk the very first night leaving an opening in the performance spotlight. Enter Casey who is quickly slipping on nylons and a wig while learning to lip-sync some Piaf classics. The comedy comes from the culture shock of a straight man reduced to drag in order to pay the bills. Those bills have suddenly increased with the recent pregnancy of his wife, Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), who is clueless about her husband’s new job.
The acting here isn’t always convincing but Stern is an obvious stand-out playing the comedy’s best-written part which includes his very funny take on Judy Garland complete with booze and pill-popping. Alexander, doing double-duty as both the flashy Rexy and Jason, Casey’s amiable next door neighbor, is also memorable. In the lead role, Thomas is likable and his initial venture into “becoming” Edith Piaf is fitfully funny though I wasn’t always captivated by the bland country singer persona he embodies for the rest of the play. In thankless roles both Smith and Nixon-Fleming add little to the proceedings.
Paul Tate dePoo III’s set design comes up with an appropriately cluttered backstage and dressing room area as well as Casey and Jo’s modest apartment. Leon Dobkowski’s ambitious costuming is fast and furious as the drag performances escalate. And of special note is Mark Adam Rampmeyer’s wig design which is everything outrageous you’d expect under the circumstances.
Still, there is little fresh or original here that hasn’t been done previously under better circumstances and the play’s eventual plea for tolerance never really seems earned. By impersonating women, Casey becomes a more responsible man much in the way that Dustin Hoffman’s “Tootsie” did way back in 1982. There’s no doubt, however, that TheaterWorks’ enthusiastic audience is up for anything that Lopez and ace director Rob Ruggiero are ready to reveal. Ultimately, one’s enjoyment of “Georgia McBride” may be in direct proportion to how hilarious and entertaining you find lip-synching drag queens to be.
“The Legend of Georgia McBride” continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, April 22. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworks.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.