A straight man in drag and a drag queen in hell.
Throw in some Elvis and mix with some country and you’ve got “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” playing at The Laboratory Theater of Florida through June 30.
The play opens with a fair-to-middling Elvis impersonator performing at Cleo’s, a little club in Panama City.
With a cheap costume and a not-really-Elvis voice, it’s not exactly paying the rent for Casey (Steven Michael Kennedy); on one night, only seven people are in the audience. And speaking of the rent, his rent check bounces, and his wife, Jo (Imani Lee Williams) isn’t happy about it.
A couple of drag queens show up at Cleo’s and Casey loses his job.
Elvis is out and Miss Tracy Mills (Clayton W. Brown) and Anna Rexy Nervosa (TJ Albertson) are suddenly the club’s new attraction.
But when Rexy gets too drunk to perform, someone has to step in and help. And yes, you guessed it — the King becomes a queen, if only for the green.
It’s safe to say he’s not prime drag queen material — when he first dresses up to lip sync an Edith Piaf number, he looks like a cross between Emily Dickinson and Miss Jane Hathaway from “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
But he needs a name; a good, clever drag queen name is vital. So before he goes onstage, Tracy asks him where his mother was born.
“Macon, Georgia,” Casey tells her.
Then she asks the name of his first girlfriend.
“Angie McBride,” he replies, and thus his drag name is created: Georgia McBride.
He’s pushed out on stage and has to lip sync to a song he’s never heard before.
Sung in French.
Tracy suggests an obscene phrase he can mouth that will look as if he’s singing the words.
And so Georgia McBride is born.
The lanky Mr. Kennedy is wonderfully awkward as a straight man trying to portray a woman. He puts on his first pair of pantyhose standing up, and doesn’t even know to point his toes.
His physical gyrations while trying to dress as a woman are akin to a truck driver trying to put on a prom gown. He’s a mess: he has lipstick on his teeth and the cups of his brassiere point east and west instead of straight ahead.
It takes a while, but eventually, Georgia hits on her persona — a kind of countrified redneck Elvis.
Mr. Albertson provides some humor as a drag queen with anger and drinking issues. And that five o-clock shadow he sports provides some interesting gender fluidity as well. His character has one of the best exit lines: “Grab a sweater, ladies, you’re gonna need it in my shadow.”
Rexy’s a mess, but she soldiers on. And Mr. Albertson shows great versatility in playing her (as well as an impressive set of gams).
But it’s Mr. Brown as Tracy who makes this show, from the moment she strides onstage with a pink coat and a gorgeous polka-dot frock cinched at the waist with a belt. It’s as she’s stepped out of a Douglas Sirk film.
Mr. Brown’s costumes and wigs were designed and furnished by the actor himself, and each one is jaw dropping in beauty and quality. They range from a black-and-white graphic print 1960s go-go dress to a sea foam green outfit with an abundance of ruffles in crystal organza.
Every time Tracy is onstage, she’s in a different outfit.
At one point, when she walked out, the woman sitting in front of me exclaimed, “I want that dress.”
I laughed, because that’s what I’d been saying to myself with almost each new outfit.
Mr. Brown was born to play this role, and it fits him like an above-the-elbow pair of black silk gloves.
His character literally sparkles, whether it’s her eye shadow, lipstick or gowns.
Her very personality sparkles. And then, of course, there are all the sequins.
She is fabulousness squared.
What’s great about this character is that she’s genuine, played authentically, not for cheap laughs.
When she first performs, lip-syncing and twirling to Aretha Franklin’s cover of “I Say a Little Prayer,” we’re entranced.
Her personality is so strong, so appealing, that the rest of the story unfortunately pales in comparison. Frankly, the show is just not even half as fun when it focuses on the straight characters.
The club’s manager, Eddie (Keith Gahagan) is just a doof in bad tropical shirts, shorts, and black socks and shoes. He eventually gets better at being an emcee and his fashion sense evolves — a little. He’s the stereotypical Florida beach bum who still hasn’t grown up.
Ms. Williams has the task of being the adult in her marriage. She and Mr. Kennedy have a nice moment where they ask each other questions, but there aren’t very many sparks in this relationship.
Casey’s progression as a drag queen is impressive, especially when he gets in touch with his inner Gretchen Wilson and Reba McEntire.
But for me, his transformation is far from complete. I would never mistake his character as anything more than a straight guy in women’s clothes, and the big 11 o’clock number, where he tries to channel his inner Elvis, doesn’t quite work for me, even though he makes meaningful eye contact with various audience members while singing.
“The Legend of Georgia McBride” would have been more meaningful if the character truly did get more in touch with his feminine side.
Playwright Matthew Lopez does have countless clever lines, many that made me laugh out loud. It’s sharp writing. But during the second act, I couldn’t help but wonder why a straight character is the star of a play about drag queens? It’s like those movies that are allegedly about African-American history or heroes, but the leads are all white.
The sets are negligible, but it doesn’t matter.
The costumes and wigs more than make up for it.
Mr. Brown, as Miss Tracy Mills, brings the glitz and the glamour. She’s all flounce and sass, a fully developed character we grow to love and care about.
Is it high art? No.
But it’s a hell of a way to celebrate Pride Month.
Here’s hoping “Georgia McBride” gets the audience it deserves.
It’s so much fun, it’s worth seeing again. ¦
“The Legend of Georgia McBride”
>> When: Through June 30
>> Where: The Laboratory Theater of Florida, 1634 Woodford Ave., Fort Myers
>> Cost: $28
>> Info: 218-0481 or www.laboratorytheaterflorida.com
>>Note: Some language may not be considered suitable for children.
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