Matthew Lopez's The Legend of Georgia McBride, now receiving its world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre, began as a staged reading at last year's New Play Summit. Lopez has two plays running in Denver right now, and both feature original and intriguing central concepts. In The Whipping Man, currently at Curious, it's a Passover seder celebrated by two recently freed slaves with the son of their previous owner — all of them Jewish — immediately following the Civil War. In Georgia McBride, set in contemporary Panama City, Florida, the central plot pivot concerns the unlikely transformation of Casey, the protagonist, a shiftless shlub and easygoing dreamer.
Casey has a wife, Jo, whom he adores, and scrapes out the barest of livings as an Elvis impersonator at a grimy local bar. But then Jo reveals that she's pregnant, and Eddie, the bar's owner, says he's thinking of closing the place. In a desperate, last-ditch move, he hires a couple of drag queens to perform. Which means that Casey impersonating Elvis is out. That is, unless he can — oh, no, it's too ridiculous — well, unless he can pull off a drag act himself! Although The Whipping Man is serious and profound while Georgia McBride is a frothy bubble, this central device could still be a motherlode of richly humanistic revelation. But the play is underwritten, the characters have little contour or dimension, and the plot isn't complex or funny enough to work as farce — although the possibilities for plot complications are rife. How will Jo react when she finds out how her husband has been making his money? How will Christian brother Beau, who's running for this conservative town's school board, deal with the inevitable fallout? But it turns out that Jo's a pushover and the fallout is entirely evitable.
Director Mike Donahue has added to the writing deficiencies by having his actors use exaggerated Southern accents and adopt purely presentational performance styles; he also has most of them take two or three roles. Some of these scenes and disguises are very successful, as we try to figure out whether Beau is actually Miss Tracy Mills (both are played by Matt McGrath) and who the raucous drag queen emcee of the second act might be (Nick Mills, who's also Jason and Miss Rexy). But when Jamie Ann Romero, who plays a touching Jo, came bustling out as Eddie, my first thought was to wonder whether the company was simply trying to save money on salaries.
The Legend of Georgia McBride
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 23, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.
A lot of interesting possibilities get bypassed: There could be so much more about how a regular small-town guy adjusts to drag, for example. How does he learn to hold his body, use his hands, turn his head, move his hips? How does he change his thinking? And what does he come to understand about femininity and masculinity? It's true that Casey, played by a lively Ben Huber, does ultimately embrace drag and appreciate it as a genuine form of art, but we know this because he says it; we don't see his character deepen.
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The drag numbers save the evening. The first act springs to vivid life as Miss Tracy Mills teaches Casey, who's working on Edith Piaf's "Padam Padam," that the key to lip synching is repeating the words "watermelon motherfucker." There's a great lip synch by Miss Rexy to Eartha Kitt's "Champagne Taste" and a terrific number sung by Miss Mills that starts out with "(Not) Getting Married Today," from Steven Sondheim's Company, and then rips through a medley containing bits of everything from Bernstein's Candide to Styne, Sondheim and Laurents's Gypsy to Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. (I might be mixing some of this up, but no sooner did I recognize a lyric or snatch of melody than it gave way to another in a kaleidoscope of glittering and exuberant musical wit.) Elvis was definitely in the building for the night, and the song choices in general were inspired — for which credit presumably goes to Lopez and arranger Jill BC Du Boff. As the show goes along, the drag elements gets glitzier, flashier and louder, obscuring the play's deficiencies — until you leave the theater and start thinking about the lost opportunities.