Measured by the usual hard-hitting fare at GableStage, Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride isn’t much of a play, but it does have the makings of one hell of a drag show.
Sure, you could argue that the 90-minute evening is a celebration of the tawdry lower depths of show business and a look at how one unlikely cross-dresser gets in touch with his feminine side, but the bottom line is how entertaining a trio of lip-syncing guys dressed as gals rock the stage at the Coral Gables playhouse.
And with Clay Cartland – the region’s finest physical comic actor – in the title role as neophyte drag royalty, director Joseph Adler has an audience-friendly, alternative-lifestyle hit on his hands.
Cartland plays Casey, who initially fancies himself an Elvis impersonator. But the audiences at Cleo’s, the Florida Panhandle bar where he performs his act, are awfully sparse, so the owner – a hambone named Eddie (Dave Corey) – is forced to dump Casey in favor of a has-been drag queen who bills himself/herself as Miss Tracy Mills (Tom Wahl).
When Miss Tracy’s sidekick, a scrawny, angry queen named Rexy – as in “Anna Rexy Nervosa” – passes out drunk just before a show, Casey reluctantly fills in, not unlike Louise Hovick in Gypsy. Enlisted to impersonate Edith Piaf, a performer Casey has never heard of, he clumsily mouths her recorded French song and moves about the stage like a Gallic truck driver.
But Casey swiftly climbs the learning curve to dragdom in a very funny montage. He becomes a favorite of the rapidly increasing audience and starts receiving a sizeable income. Suddenly he can pay his rent and afford the baby his wife Jo (Jade Wheeler) is expecting, not that he has told her how he is making all this money.
Yes, there are dramatic issues here, but they all get resolved too tidily, sitcom-style. And while Rexy has a well-written monologue about the homophobia he encountered growing up in Houston, playwright Lopez suggests there is no comparable resistance to the drag policy at Cleo’s in the Panhandle. Huh?
So you could nitpick The Legend of Georgia McBride to death, or you could sit back and enjoy the numerous drag show interludes. As Miss Tracy, Tom Wahl may not be the prettiest faux-woman you have ever encountered, but he knows how to sell the illusion, garbed fetchingly in gowns by Ellis Tillman. But the play belongs to Cartland, who transforms before our eyes and Georgia McBride (a drag name made from where he grew up and his first girlfriend) is soon enjoying the attention and the applause.
He doesn’t have much stage time, but Sean Patrick Doyle as Rexy lights it up with each entrance. He is the real deal, having just come from two-and-a-half cross-dressing years in Kinky Boots on Broadway and a similar stint in the revival of La Cage aux Folles. Plus, he demonstrates his versatility doubling as Casey’s put-upon landlord. The role of Casey’s pregnant wife Jo could be better written, but Jade Wheeler (a veteran of GableStage’s Race and Ruined) makes her a sympathy magnet.
As artistic director Adler concedes in his opening remarks, The Legend of Georgia McBride was selected before he knew we would need a respite from the Trumpian political noise, but now that we do, the choice makes for welcome entertainment relief.
THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA McBRIDE, Gable Stage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Through Sunday, June 25. $42-$60. 305-445-1119.