It is easy to predict that once word hits the streets, tickets to “The Legend of Georgia McBride” will be hard to come by. That assessment is based on the audience reaction to the play, written by gay playwright Matthew Lopez, which opened the 2019-20 season at Phoenix Theatre on Friday night. In all my years of reviewing theatre, there are only a few productions that generated as much of a raucous response as this tribute to drag. In many ways, it was similar to the atmosphere you’ll find on any given night in any drag club in America.
I should know since I have been a drag fan for 50 years, ever since I was a 21-year-old living in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the only spot in town to see drag performed was Tulisa’s Up The Street. The club’s owner, the legendary Tula, aka Charles Miller, was the featured headliner then and is still performing today in her current establishment, After Dark Nightclub.
The Phoenix made an inspired choice when they contracted Suzanne Fleenor to direct the show. She recently moved back to Indy after residing in Texas for years. With her experience as an actor and director of a string of hit shows, not to mention her ties to the LGTBQ+ community as a strong ally and her political and social sensibilities in general, there was no one better than her to take on this work and effectively tell this story. Ensuring she captured every detail of the drag world accurately was none other than Asia LaBouche, aka Doug Mellinger, who ruled the drag roost in Indy for 28 years prior to moving to North Carolina in 2017. He served as a consultant for the show.
And what an entertaining story it is. Especially considering that the artists to whom the drag queens lip sync include Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer and Rosemary Clooney . With most of the action taking place in a hole-in-the-wall bar in Panama City, Florida, “Georgia McBride” centers on Casey (Sam C. Jones), a mediocre Elvis impersonator whose life falls apart once he loses his gig, falls behind on rent and discovers his wife (Bridgette Ludlow) is pregnant, all at the same time. His fortunes change however, when his boss brings in a down-and-out drag show to replace his act and he sees an opportunity to reinvent himself. In transforming into George McBride, he not only learns some unexpected new skills, but also discovers that it takes a real man to walk in heels.
Choosing just the right cast to tell this story, with its themes of tolerance, self-acceptance and broadening one’s horizons was critical. And in this regard, Fleenor made wise decisions starting with Sam C. Jones as sweet but sometimes immature Casey, aka Georgia McBride. Jones, who previously played Elvis in three different regional productions, is an ideal choice. Highlights of the show include him, both in and out of drag, singing the poignant “Lost and Found,” with lyrics by playwright Lopez and music by Brent Marty, who served as music consultant. Jones also brought the house down when, as Georgia, he first appears in drag as Edith Piaf singing “Padam, padam.”
John Vessels, who impressed me in the Phoenix’s 2018 hit “Bright Star,” and again last season in “Ruthless” at Actors Theatre of Indiana, is no stranger to drag. Vessels is well-known for his character Lillian Baxter, a has-been actress whom I first beheld when she headlined “A Very Lillian Baxter Christmas” at White Rabbit Cabaret. In this show, Vessels triumphs as Miss Tracy Mills, who is actually Bobby, a cousin of the club owner who hires her. Kind-hearted, world-wise, and always ready with a quip, her Miss Tracy is really the play’s centerpiece, delivering some of Lopez’s funniest dialogue.
Jonathan Studdard, who plays dual roles as Casey’s landlord Jason and drag queen Rexy, aka Miss Anorexia Nervosa, was outstanding in the larger-than-life drag role, especially when he/she sang Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Studdard also showcased his acting chops during a powerful and moving monologue in which, as Rexy, he explains to Casey how drag means more to him than mere entertainment.
Ty Stover played Eddie, the cranky, yet open-minded owner of Cleo’s Bar, where much of the play’s action happens. He was hilarious, especially during his character’s introductions of the drag numbers. Showing flair as a comic actor, Stover excelled in his timing and delivery.
Ludlow, as Jo, Casey’s long-suffering and often clueless wife, showed believable chemistry with Jones’s character. It’s a role that is not as colorful as the others in the play, but one that is pivotal and one which she played convincingly. Fairly new to Indy, Ludlow is becoming well-known for her singing talent (she most recently appeared in Magic Thread Cabaret’s hit Fringe show “Les Chanteuses,”) but in this show, she demonstrates she is also an accomplished actor.
As far as the show’s technical production, my only criticism is designer Lindsey Lyddan’s set. I think she missed the mark by devising the set so that the apartment and club are side by side. It meant that the show’s marvelous production numbers, lovingly created by choreographer Kenny Shepard were squeezed into a cramped area filled with furniture. They deserved more space.
On the plus side, Stephen Hollenbecks’s costumes, Andrew Elliot’s over-the-top wigs, Laura Glover’s lighting, Danielle Buckel’s props and Zach Rosing’s sound design make for a spectacle that emulates the fantasy world that the drag genre creates.
Some will argue that thanks to“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the Emmy Award winning reality competition TV show, drag has become too mainstream and that in an age when kids are enjoying drag-queen story hours, it is no longer edgy or political. By 2014 when “Georgia McBride” premiered, however, mainstream popularity was still in its beginning stages. Often sentimental with its focus on family and what constitutes family, Lopez’s affectionate tribute to drag, with its universal themes, is irresistible and would touch even the most hardened hearts with its humor and heart. I think it’s safe to say; even your most conservative grandma would enjoy it.
For tickets and information about “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” call (317) 635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.