Right, but The Legend of Georgia McBride diverges from your run-of-the-mill story about two young adults trying to live the American dream from the very moment it begins. To make ends meet, Jo waits tables at a diner in town. Casey ventures each night to Cleo’s, a nightclub off the beaten path where he works as an aspiring Elvis impersonator awaiting his big break.
Eddie, the crotchety owner and operator of Cleo’s, decides to go in a new direction to save the place, hiring his cousin, a B-list drag queen named Miss Tracy Mills (Courter Simmons) to try and attract some new business. Casey is relegated to bar tending, and his Elvis dream appears to be over. In a twist of fate, Casey becomes the drag persona Georgia McBride, and Tracy and Georgia quickly become the hottest attraction in town. The cash starts rolling in and, eventually, they all live happily ever after.
The endearing James Pickering — a Rep regular—plays Eddie, the surprisingly woke, or at least entrepreneurial, barkeep whose failing cabaret becomes the talk of Panama City Beach, a coastal enclave in Florida’s panhandle about half-way between Tallahassee and Pensacola. Panama City also happens to be the home town of playwright Matthew Lopez, whose script doesn’t hold back in poking fun at the podunk beach spot.
Neither do the stage dressings, by scenic and lighting designers Collette Pollard and Paul Toben. The pair built a wonderfully chintzy proscenium framing the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater at mid-stage, with sunset hues a la the Florida Gulf betwixt wrought iron palm trees in silhouette. It’s the focal point of Cleo’s, a not-so-lavish theater that converts seamlessly into the dressing room and backstage space, or Jo and Casey’s modest apartment throughout the play.
The Legend of Georgia McBride might be the opposite of The Whipping Man, Lopez’s breakout play that debuted at the Rep in 2014. Or maybe it isn’t. The Whipping Man (which earned Lopez multiple awards after an Off-Broadway run at the Manhattan Theatre Club) is set in post-Civil War America, and explores various meanings of freedom and enslavement.
In a sense, so, too, does Georgia McBride, though in a very different setting. Acceptance, resilience, agency and intersectionality are at the heart of this seemingly silly play, which really hits its stride right in the middle. Director Meredith McDonough — in an obviously close collaboration with costume designer Patrick Holt and sound designer Lindsay Jones — really nails the staging as Georgia first fumbles, then evolves into a magnificent drag queen. Time passes quickly, but not too abruptly, as Cleo’s goes from a dud dive bar to a lucrative tourist destination with a hilarious series of seasonal drag routines running one right after the other.
Miss Tracy Mills might be written as a sub-par queen who needs Eddie as much as he needs her, but Simmons is terrific, both in and out of drag. So, too, is Armand Fields, who doubles as Jason (Jo and Tracy’s landlord) and Tracy’s fabulously campy side-kick, Rexy. Of the two characters, Fields’ Rexy is more convincing, if rightly tentative on the set’s slick linoleum floor while donning high-heeled stilettos or roller skates.
Kantor also plays two dissimilar roles: Casey at home and Casey at work. As Casey, the straight guy from Florida, grapples with conflicting feelings about Georgia, a fearless, successful and confident diva, Kantor’s Georgia is charming and loveable — Casey, less so. A truly talented queen, Kantor’s Elvis and guitar playing are wholly mediocre. But maybe that’s the point.
There’s a glossy veneer of triviality to The Legend of Georgia McBride, in which the characters’ authentic selves don’t often show up, and it’s easy to simply sit back laugh, and drop a few singles in Georgia’s padded bra.
But they do — show up, that is. The drag performances in this play sparkle; its few moments of honesty shine. Hyperbolic affectations try to make hick-type bros out of Jason and Casey, down to their contrived North Florida accents. As those “dudes” became more complex throughout the play, they grew on me. At intervals, the characters reveal their nuances, like when Jo, who should not be forgotten amongst all the heels and hairspray, fights with her husband; when Jason talks about his past; and in some late-night real talk between Casey and Tracy when Casey’s secret is revealed. And Rexy’s poignant monologue at her dressing table might be the highlight of this play, in which she questions Casey’s right to participate in and profit from a glittery profession that is much more than impersonating divas.
Roxy provides a lesson for us all: Drag queens are fun, but the history of drag coincides with American politics, hate crimes and the ongoing fight for LGBTQ equality and freedom of expression. I think it’s important to keep that in mind when buying tickets to The Legend of Georgia McBride (which you should). Go for the drag queens, but show up for the larger message: underneath all the make-up and sequins are humans who regularly risk their lives to be themselves.
The Milwaukee Rep’s The Legend of Georgia McBride runs through Feb. 9 in the Quadracci Powerhouse at the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex. For tickets and more information, visit the Milwaukee Rep’s website or call 414-224-9490.