Review: “The Legend of Georgia McBride”

Jeff Kurysz, Nate Santana, Sean Blake, The Legend of Georgia McBride-Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through Oct. 22
Tickets: $30-$81
Phone: 847-673-6300

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Start with a silly, improbable premise. Piece together a contrived plot. Craft dialogue that careens between smart-ass and snooze-worthy. Add lip-syncing to a bunch of popular songs. Throw in a message about inclusiveness, and you’ve pretty much got Matthew Lopez’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” which is enjoying a slightly uneven Chicago premiere at Northlight Theatre.

It’s all in good fun, of course, but unfortunately the production directed by Lauren Shouse isn’t quite sharp or funny enough to prevent the 90 intermission-less minutes from becoming tedious.

The conceit is that Casey (Nate Santana), an down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator working at a Panama City, Florida, bar called Cleo’s finds success when he’s roped into becoming a drag queen. After a less-than-thrilling opening sample of his Elvis act, we see him at home having an argument with his wife, Jo (Leslie Ann Sheppard), because he overdrew their account buying a pizza and bounced the rent check for a second time. Not only are they at risk of being thrown out by the landlord, his friend Jason (Jeff Kurysz), Jo announces she’s pregnant, test result in hand to prove it.

The optimistic Casey is ecstatic about becoming a parent, but the crisis deepens when he returns to work and discovers that Eddie (Keith Kupferer), upset that his club is on the brink of failure, has agreed to ax Elvis and let his cousin, Bobby, put on a drag show instead. Bobby arrives in full drag regalia as Miss Tracy Mills (Sean Blake), along with Rexy (Kurzsz), short for Anorexia Nervosa, which she quips is “Italian.”

Rather than being fired, Casey is reduced to bartender, and before we have time to ponder why Eddie would think a drag show could save Cleo’s, which isn’t a gay bar, Rexy, who has a serious substance abuse problem, passes out and can’t perform her Edith Piaf number. Eddie responds by telling Casey he has to do it, and Miss Tracy has to help, or he’ll fire them both.

Thus is born Miss Georgia McBride—Miss Tracy comes up with the name—and much of what we see is a superficial version of how this transformation is effected, with Miss Tracy giving obvious tips and the Piaf impersonation (humorous in its amateurishness) quickly giving way to a new persona—a sort of rhinestone cowgirl who lip-syncs to hits by Loretta Lynn et al.

The drag show is a huge hit, and the money is rolling in, but the one complication is that Casey hasn’t told his now-very-pregnant wife what he’s doing for a living, When she shows up at the club to surprise him, the sh*t hits the fan, they have a huge fight (yes, they do spend a lot of time fighting), and he walks out on the gig to follow Jo home to explain, leaving Miss Tracy in the lurch.

This results in Casey having to figure out who he is, Miss Tracy (in her one scene not in drag) offering sort-of-sage advice, and Rexy, who’d been fired, being rehired and, gloating over Casey’s difficulties, delivering a speech about drag being a protest statement not everyone is entitled to make. (Why Lopez gives this monologue to a character with a substance abuse problem is beyond me.)

Of course, we know everything is going to turn out fine in the end, with everyone becoming one big nontraditional family, so nothing really is at stake here. Some smart lines and take downs notwithstanding, the musical numbers really have to carry the entertainment weight, and although Santana has a good time as Georgia, his lip-syncing is only fair, and he’s not the most convincing drag queen. Blake, oddly, is best when he’s in drag doing Miss Tracy rather than performing as various divas on stage at Cleo’s, segments that were marred by less-than-perfect sound on opening night. Kupferer makes a solid straight man, and Kurysz deserves a shout out for his complete transformation from Jason to Rexy.

In addition, there’s a certain sloppiness to the show that’s typified by the inconsistent transformations from backstage to onstage at the club. Richard and Jacqueline Pernod’s detailed scenic design, which also doubles as Casey and Jo’s apartment, has a shimmery curtain that can be drawn for the performances, but sometimes it isn’t when it should be. Rachel Laritz’s costume design sparkles—but doesn’t always make sense.

I was left feeling that “The Legend of Georgia McBride” lacked a certain something, but the evening wasn’t entirely wasted.