In "The Legend of Georgia McBride," it's all a matter of persona

HARTFORD, Conn. — "Okay, there are a million things you need to know about drag but the only thing you need to know right now is that drag is about persona. What are you? What's your story?"

That advice is delivered by an experienced professional lip-syncing drag queen named Miss Tracy Mills as she rushes to get a heterosexual lip-syncing Elvis impersonator named Casey ready for an emergency pinch-hit performance in a bar named Cleo's in the Florida Panhandle's Panama City.

Those questions —"Who are you? What's your story?" — go to the heart of Matthew Lopez' well-intentioned, by-the-numbers comedy, "The Legend of Georgia McBride," at TheaterWorks where this audience-friendly show has extended its run through April 29.

Casey (played by a sincere Austin Thomas with neither particular insight nor distinction) is a twentysomething Peter Pan who has yet to find what he truly wants to do with his life. His wife, Jo (played by Samaria Nixon-Fleming as credibly as Lopez' shallow script will permit) works hard as a waitress. It turns out she is pregnant, news that Casey greets with eager anticipation and his characteristic naive belief that everything in life will work out for the best.

"You're never worried," Jo says to Casey in an early exchange, just after popping the news that he is about to become a father.

"And why do you think that is?" he replies.

"Because you don't see all the potential for disaster that I do," she says.

"No," he says. "it's because I know everything will eventually be okay. We're going to be fine, Jo."

But her concerns here are legitimate. Money is the issue. Casey has overdrawn their bank account. They are behind two months in the rent and their landlord, Jason (Nik Alexander), is pressing hard. It doesn't help that Casey's act is drawing audiences in dwindling numbers. He learns the hard way that he has been fired, replaced by Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern in a richly nuanced performance that demonstrates the art of less being more even in an act in which excess has its own rewards) and her stage partner, Rexy, short for Miss Anorexia Nervosa (Alexander, again), a flamboyant wreck of alcohol-soaked neuroses.

Out of some sense of fairness, Eddie (J. Tucker Smith), the bar owner and Tracy Mills' cousin, offers to keep Casey on as bartender, which Casey accepts.

When Rexy collapses in an alcoholic stupor moments before having to go on stage, Tracy presses Casey into hasty service as a drag queen.

Casey reluctantly goes along, making his debut to Edith Piaf's "Padam, Padam." It should come as no surprise — virtually nothing does in this routinely plotted piece — that Casey winds up replacing Rexy in Tracy's act. In the process, he finds his own comfort level; his persona as country drag queen Georgia McBride. It doesn't hurt that the money is good; very good.

Since high school, where he joined the drama club just to be with his girlfriend, Casey has sensed he is most in his own skin when he is in someone else's — a character in a play; Elvis; drag queen Georgia McBride.

Casey's complete emergence as Georgia McBride comes in the play's centerpiece — a montage that sends the play's time frame spinning over a roughly six-month period as we see Georgia and Tracy in alternating numbers from their act, lip-syncing Loretta Lynn, Judy Garland, Reba McIntire, Kay Thompson, culminating with Georgia's turn to Shania Twain's "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" Highlighting the sequence is Tracy Mills' tour de force to Debbie Shapiro Gravitte's elevator music interpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "I Enjoy Being a Girl," laced with iconic spoken soundtrack snippets from some of Hollywood's iconic leading ladies.

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" is never more alive or entertaining than it is in this montage and in a finale that you just know is coming, performed by Tracy, Georgia and a reconstituted Rexy to the voices of Lady Gaga (yes, "Born This Way" is in the mix) and RuPaul. By contrast, the narrative sequences are, at best, sketchy and obligatory.

Lopez doesn't know when to quit. At an intermissionless less-than-two-hours, "The Legend of Georgia McBride" goes a scene or two too far. Lopez is determined to leave nothing dangling.

Both Lopez' writing and director Rob Ruggiero's steadfast production gain immensely from Stern's Tracy Mills. Lopez gives us virtually no background about Tracy but it is clear from Stern's portrayal that there is a history there. It is most evident in a scene with Casey when, frustrated, dispirited and disheartened he shows up at Tracy's apartment seeking comfort and advice; sanctuary, even if only for a few moments. Dressed in male shirt and pants, there is weariness about Tracy; a sense that she has been drinking and, she is, she says, not alone. She is not rude but, by the same token, she is hard, blunt, not welcoming.

She is alive as Miss Tracy. She's a savvy businesswoman; resourceful; pragmatic; very much in charge. She has a welcoming sense of humor; an understanding, flecked with cynicism, of how the world works. She sees this gig at Cleo's as an opportunity to rebuild the act; get back into the game. "Finally," she tells Rexy, "a chance to build something from the ground up."

Clearly, she is at home performing. She knows how to fill her own well and bring an audience to its feet in the process — as she does in the finale with Georgia and Rexy.

Stern's Miss Tracy Mills is both larger than life and lifelike; excess with boundary. What a trip!

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or


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