Let’s clarify that headline just a bit: “The Legend of Georgia McBride” at GableStage in Coral Gables IS a play about drag AND the feel-good hit of the summer, guaranteed to provide a welcome respite from global warming.
GableStage’s politically minded artistic director Joseph Adler was quick to point both out in his curtain speech, noting the sandbags piled around the entrance to the theater located in the tony Biltmore Hotel. Current events were quickly forgotten as the lights rose for Matthew Lopez’s comedy:
Casey (Clay Cartland) is an Elvis impersonator struggling to eek out a living at Cleo’s, a beachfront Panama City honky tonk. When his wife, Jo (Jade Wheeler), announces she is pregnant, the financial implications are hardly his foremost concern—until his boss Eddie (Dave Corey) announces that he is replacing Casey’s Elvis act with a drag show.
Eddie’s cousin, Miss Tracy Mills (Tom Wahl), will headline the act, backed up by her bitter, inebriated sidekick, Miss Annarexia “Rexie” Nervosa (Sean Patrick Doyle). If the father-to-be wants to keep a job at the club, he’ll have to serve drinks behind the bar.
When “Rexie” becomes incapacitated on opening night, Casey faces a choice to don heels and wig or take a walk. His reluctant decision sends him on a journey of self-discovery. That’s really all you need to know about the play.
Lopez’s story is not completely original, drawing inspiration from some of the best moments of “La Cage aux Folles,” “Torch Song Trilogy,” “To Wong Foo…” and “The Birdcage” with a little sprinkling of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” shade thrown in for good measure.
Yes, there are the obligatory references to the drag queens who incited the Stonewall Riots and the continuing abuse many LGBT people face every day, lessons not lost on the older, mostly “straight, not narrow” audience at the Sunday matinee.
And, Jo’s surprise revelation that her husband is supporting the couple by dressing up and performing as a woman is completely predictable and telegraphed from the earliest scenes.
Cartland is immediately likeable as the ever-optimistic Casey. The Carbonell Award-winner is known for his unique brand of physical comedy, showcased especially in the drag lessons conducted under the patient tutelage of Tracy. He fumbles with falsies and stumbles around in stilettos and delivers hilarious moments of high camp drag in outrageous costumes by Ellis Tillman.
The funniest scene involves the evolution of his first drag persona, gay icon Edith Piaf singing “Padam, Padam.” Cartland had the audience giggling as he adapted the tricks of the trade to the mannerisms of the quirky French chanteuse. “Whenever you don’t know the lyrics, just repeat ‘watermelon, motherfucker’,” Tracy explains.
Wahl is a confident and knowing “drag mother” throughout the entire transformation, always believable, empathetic and sincere, and does a credible job himself performing as Barbra, Judy and Cher. Doyle (who also does double duty as Casey’s landlord Jason) provides comic relief, delivers the moving history lesson and later performs the best drag performance of the show as Cyndi Lauper.
Not to be overlooked, Lyle Baskin’s multi-layered set takes advantage of the theater’s unconventional, wide performance space, quickly and effectively transforming between the couple’s apartment, the dressing room and nightclub stage.
GableStage presents Matthew Lopez’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride” through June 25 inside the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave. in Coral Gables. Tickets are $60 at GableStage.org.