Dallas — It’s part flashy drag show, part drama of personal transformation, part study of gender roles, part old-fashioned love story, part essay on the power of theater, but, most of all, it’s non-stop, laugh-out-loud punch lines.
That’s Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride, currently playing at Kalita Humphreys Theater in a production directed by Bruce R. Coleman for Uptown Players. This parable of a straight guy who discovers his knack for drag premiered in Denver in 2015 before playing in Los Angeles and off-Broadway; Uptown Players owns the honor of the “Bible Belt” debut of this drag drama, and brings it closer than any previous production to the play’s designated setting of the Florida Panhandle. (Except for occasional references to a nearby beach, the setting could just as well be anyplace in Texas more than ten miles outside of major urban city limits.)
The relentless laughs (I was gasping for breath more than a few times) kept the 90-minute-plus one-act clipping along at the opening night performance, with the finest comic moments delivered by Walter Lee as the gorgeously slender and delightfully bitchy drag queen Tracy Mills. At least six feet tall (plus heels), Lee constantly catches the audience off guard with delivery and facial expression (including killer eye-brows).
But, more than the laughs, it’s the depth of character development—those little empathy-inducing contradictions and character quirks—that makes The Legend of Georgia McBride live. Sky Williams as the long-suffering young wife Jo convincingly shifts from exasperation to infatuation; Tyler Cochran as the unhappily married, unhappily parenting landlord/buddy/neighbor Jason stumbles into an intriguing and touchingly believable confession at a key moment. Chris Herrero as the secondary drag queen Anorexia Nervosa comes as close to a villain as this comedy allows, but delivers the key monologue, and makes it ring true to the themes of the play as well as to her complex, alcoholic personality. And the credible transformation of bar owner Eddie (Bradley Campbell) from bumbling emcee to winking drag show host provides an ongoing delight.
But the heart of the show belongs to Kyle Igneczi in the title role of Casey (drag name Georgia McBride), the happy-go-lucky redneck Everyman who dreams of making it big as an Elvis impersonator but who discovers that he not only can make much more money doing drag but that he actually enjoys it. Ignezci’s Casey is never pretty, either as a man or a woman, and he delivers with a distinctively raspy, redneck whine—making his transformation all the more convincing and captivating. Igneczi furthermore treads the fine line between realism and parody beautifully: he’s always believable, and, when the part calls for it, incredibly funny.
For the moment in which Casey becomes, on short notice, the drag queen Georgia McBride, playwright Lopez borrowed from the iconic scene in Jule Styne’s classic musical Gypsy in which the innocent Louise becomes the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. But it’s a worthy bit of appropriation, capturing as it does the point at which a human being discovers something inside himself that he never knew was there. The hilariously awkward dressing of Casey for his first drag performance—particularly rich with comedy, suspense, and the process of creating drag—elides beautifully into Casey’s stumbling first moments as a drag queen, channeling a raging reimagination of Edith Piaf (whom he has never heard of).
Cast in a single act with many substantial scenes, including some deliciously authentic lip-sync performances, The Legend of Georgia McBride plays out on a revolving platform presenting the stage at a small rural bar, the dressing room backstage at the same bar, and Casey and Jo’s apartment; the scenery by director Coleman and Dennis Canright, as well as the costumes by Suzi Cranford, unobtrusively present a working-class, small-town environment, suddenly invaded by the world of drag.
That The Legend of Georgia McBride is more than just another comedy emerges in two parallel developments. First, the that it is the defining act of masculinity—becoming a father—that forces Casey into assuming the feminizing role of a drag queen. Beyond that, there’s a wonderful soliloquy by Casey to the power of theater, and its ability to transform the performer as well as the audience.
One might take issue with Lopez’s happily-ever-after ending, but it is, after all, a comedy. The final scene, a quick drag lip-sync revue featuring all the canned standard drag numbers (courtesy ASCAP), light-heartedly but meaningfully sails through the humor, defiance, and profound absurdity of drag. Even while this final “dragstraveganza” is in process, alert audience members will anticipate, from several songs away, the final curtain call-encore song. If you haven’t already guessed, the first two words are “We are…"