Monday, April 10, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 388, A Review: "The Legend of Georgia McBride" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

A drag queen is a performer or artist (usually a male) who uses drag clothing, makeup, lipstick, glitter, wigs, jewelry and outrageous female costuming to imitate and parody women (all ages, all sizes, all shapes) solely for entertainment purposes.

Nothing obscene.
Nothing shameful.
Nothing worthy of a witch hunt.
Just something that's absolute fun and way over the top.

In "The Legend of Georgia McBride," a hilarious two-act comedy written by playwright Matthew Lopez, an Elvis impersonator (his name is Casey) with no money, a wife, a baby on the way and a music career that's going absolutely nowhere ends up getting fired from a Florida dive bar named Cleo's only to discover that his act is being replaced by a drag show starring Miss Tracy Mills and her overly tall sidekick Miss Anorexia Nervosa.
Not to worry, though.
Once Anorexia is too drunk to go on, he trades in his gawdy Elvis jumpsuit for a dress, hits the stage as a lip-syncing Edith Piaf and with the help of Mills herself, becomes an overnight star (this being a comedy, the days and weeks fly as quickly as Casey's many new looks and costume changes) and transforms Cleo's into one of Florida's most popular drag show venues.

With the groundwork laid - handsome straight guy becomes a drag queen at a Florida bar - the Ivoryton Playhouse revival of Lopez's 2014 play - unfolds with significant silliness and deliciously stirred satiric pacing for theatergoers who love to laugh, stand up and cheer and succumb to a sweet, playfully orchestrated amusement such as this one.
This is a production that shows audiences that drag itself is so much more than putting on lipstick, shimmying into a dress, wearing high heels and donning sparkly costumed jewelry. It is an art form - a serious one at that - that demands respect for its artistry, its candor, its expression, its cultural history, its longevity and its theatrical illusion.

As playwright, Lopez crafts a comedic work that communicates love and acceptance, instills positivity and treats people as individuals without any form of prejudice. He also creates dialogue, characters and story arcs that address the play's gay subject matter with contrast, illustration, debate and arrangement. Nothing preachy, just reflective storytelling laced with humor, nuance and tidiness.

Staging "The Legend of Georgia McBride," director/choreographer Todd L. Underwood ("Cabaret," "Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Saturday Night Fever") crafts a laugh-a-minute comedy that bubbles with focus, fidelity, snap and playful, irresistible delivery. It's a directorial conceit that honors and respects the original material to the hilt, its winning approach toward the subject matter, its full circle of hopes and dreams, its showbiz ethos and its vitality of expression.
What's especially nice about this production is that the comedy - no matter, how silly or frivolous it gets - never once veers out of control or loses sight of its drag roots, its freedom of expression or its celebratory, theatrical self. 
The message of "be yourself" rings loud and clear as does Underwood's keenly observed touches and strokes about the drag world of dress up, its grooming, its procedures, its persona, its dedication, its populace and how it adheres to the actual world of let's pretend. Here, Underwood, as storyteller, gets inside the heads of his characters, allows them to think on their feet, go with the flow, run wild and connect with everyone on the stage and in the audience.
He loves theater. He loves actors. He loves directing.  He loves live performance. He loves a challenge. He is always full of surprise.

From a directorial/actor standpoint "The Legend of Georgia McBride" is a veritable feast of acting styles, acting ranges, twists, turns and mood swings all agreeably designed and constructed to evolve in a quick, seamless fashion interspersed with lip-synced musical numbers and drag regalia brimming with plenty of snap, crackle, pop and lots and lots of glitter, ribbons, high heels, hairspray and teased hair. 
For this incarnation, Underwood punctuates Lopez's material with an extended, inventive glimpse into the world of drag by opening up the play musically to include additional songs, dances and whirls and twirls that wonderfully cement and heighten the appeal of drag, its high spiritedness, its happily themed showcases and the handpicked musical numbers designed to bring down the house night after night. 
It's a heartfelt aesthetic he fulfills most engagingly. 

In the lead role of Miss Tracy Mills, the kindly, curvy, outspoken, high-heeled drag queen who shows Casey the ropes and changes his life for the better, Sam Given - in a part that seems tailor-made exclusively for him - delivers an award-winning, show-stopping performance that is joyous, celebratory and proudly executed with jaw-dropping, applause-worthy skill, perfection and flourish.
He's funny. He's catty. He's bitchy. He's glamourous. He's witty. He's get-up-and-go magical. He's focused. He's in his element.
He also works hard - very hard.
He digs deep. He takes chances. He's primed and ready.
Musically, Underwood gives him prime songs and dances that Given tosses off effortlessly with wild abandon and drag show merriment including thrilling salutes to Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, among others, backed by homage choreography indicative of "Fosse's "Chicago" and the 1972 film version of "Cabaret."
He is at his comic peak when asked to lip sync "Some People" from "Gypsy."  Here, Given takes center stage mouthing the lyrics of this lively musical number using signature Liza Minnelli moves mixed with movements that playfully recall that of Judy Garland, Liza's mother. Is it magnificent? You bet it is.

Mike Boland, as Eddie, the desperate, money-hungry owner of Cleo's, who transforms a not-so-popular straight bar into a very successful drag show haven, eases into his important supporting role with such quick shot comic ping and zing, you'd swear Underwood yanked him out of some sleazy Florida backwoods bar and dropped him down headfirst onto the Ivoryton Playhouse stage. Framed by instinctive line delivery, manner, expression and actor-to-actor interplay, Boland delivers a tight, natural carefully balanced performance brimming with swagger, confidence, attitude and spunky, screwball bluster. He also gets lots and lots of laughs every time Eddie steps into the spotlight to deliver the next drag act. Scripted or improvised, he's a brilliant showman.

Rae Janell brings considerable warmth, charm and honesty to the role of Casey's pregnant wife Jo, who, for story purposes, is the last one to know what her husband is really up to night-after-night on the stage of Cleo's. The very tall - a casting plus on Underwood's part - and wonderfully animated Timiki Salinas, gets to play not one, but two very different roles, doubling as Casey's best buddy Jason and Rexy, the fiery drag queen extraordinaire known to her adoring audience as Miss Anorexia Nervosa. It's a spontaneous performance laced with just the right amount of wit, imagination and pulse that asks the actor to switch gears with such 360-degree duality - crazed, heated, hellish drag diva to friend/fun loving, best friend/landlord and back again - you wonder "Is this the same actor playing both parts?" You bet it is!

As Casey, a fifth-rate Elvis impersonator with an audience of about four or five, Clint Hromsco, plays the part of a down-on-his-luck character with a laid-back charm, likability and optimism that is exactly right for his character. We also feel his pain when his pockets are empty, he can't pay his rent, his bank account gets overdrawn, he faces eviction, and he suddenly learns that his wife is going to have his baby.
"We are going to be the best parents since Joseph and Mary,” he tells his wife Jo.
“Yeah, but then their kid died,” she cries back.
Transitioning himself into the title character of Georgia McBride under the watchful eye of Miss Tracy Mills, Hromsco has great fun portraying Casey's awkwardness in full drag make up and costuming never quite knowing which way to turn, how to act and move, how to lip sync and how to win over an audience.  But as the story evolves, he not only masters the art of drag performance, but shows great range as both actor, performer and musical star.

One of the funniest plays of the year, "The Legend of Georgia McBride" kicks the 2023 season at Ivoryton Playhouse into orbit with jackpot exhilaration and roar. It delivers laugh after laugh. It gets the juices flowing. The five-member cast is undeniably first-rate. Angela Carstensen's colorful, gawdy and glittery costumes create the right illusion. Martin Scott Marchitto's atmospheric set design lends itself nicely to the proceedings. And Todd L. Underwood's direction and choreography vividly portrays a real insider's glimpse in the world of drag performance and its classification as an art form that will live and thrive forever.

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through April 30, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318.

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