Desperate times call for desperate measures.
For some, that might mean taking a second or third job. Or robbing a bank. Or moving in with family.
For Casey, a straight lip-syncing Elvis impersonator in a Panama City bar, desperation means forsaking the King’s rhinestone-studded jumpsuit for pantyhose, fake boobs and big-hair wigs, the better to sell himself as a facsimile of Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire or Shania Twain.
Just opened at GableStage, Matthew Lopez’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride” chronicles Casey’s evolution from financially strapped dad-to-be to successful drag performer.
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It’s a departure for Panama City native Lopez, a celebrated playwright whose searing Civil War-era drama “The Whipping Man” has been produced at more than 100 American theaters, and for GableStage, where producing artistic director Joseph Adler favors provocative dramas. “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” though full of heart and bits of deepening content, is a flat-out hilarious comedy, albeit one that could still use some sharpening and tightening.
Set in what can only be called a tacky Panama City beach bar named Cleo’s, “Georgia McBride” features a small collection of desperate types.
Casey (Carbonell Award winner Clay Cartland) is getting nowhere with his Elvis gig and, for the second month in a row, has caused his rent check to bounce by paying for a pizza with his debit card. His wife Jo (Jade Wheeler), perpetually frustrated by her adoring yet impractical hubby, fears eviction, with good reason. Their landlord Jason (Sean Patrick Doyle), a chill dad of three and Casey’s longtime bud, is being pestered by his wife to kick out the rubber-check duo.
Over at Cleo’s, bar owner Eddie (Dave Corey) knows that Casey-as-Elvis is drawing almost no one. He sends out an SOS to his drag queen cousin, Miss Tracy Mills (Tom Wahl), who shows up with fellow diva Anorexia Nervosa (Doyle again, as Jason’s polar opposite). Ms. Nervosa, aka Rexy, notes that her drag name is “Italian” and proves to be a drunken handful. Thus begins Casey’s accidental, reluctant transformation from the King to an array of country queens.
“Georgia McBride” feels like an amalgam, part play, part “dragstravaganza” choreographed by actor-singer-dancer Julie Kleiner. Costume designer Ellis Tillman outdoes himself, transforming Wahl into Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Carmen Miranda, Cher. You can’t say you’ve lived ’til you’ve seen the buff Cartland decked out in red, white and blue drag as a curvy Dolly, shooting daggers at women in the audience as he lip syncs to “Jolene.” A fierce Doyle, dressed in colorful tulle and flat black boots, goes Cyndi Lauper one better.
Doyle, a Miamian who has appeared on Broadway in “Kinky Boots” and “La Cage aux Folles,” on national tours and on television, imbues Rexy with authenticity, angry pride and undeniable allure. When Rexy vanishes for a time, she’s missed, and “Georgia McBride” is a better show whenever Doyle, who is credited as dance captain, is onstage.
Cartland, who plays guitar and does the only live singing in the production, draws on his considerable array of talents — for sensitive acting, broad comedy, musical theater — to make Casey a guy whose pragmatic career move leads to real growth and change. From a terrified amateur asked to lip sync to a recording of a woman he calls “Edith Pilaf” to a country diva full of sassy confidence, Cartland always has the audience rooting for Casey, even when he’s embarrassing a front-row “volunteer.”
Wahl, also a Carbonell winner with great range, makes Tracy a sort of mother hen, cheerleader and trusted guide into Casey’s strange new world. Deft as he delivers some of Lopez’s funniest, most stinging lines, Wahl is also moving as he gives Casey a glimpse into Tracy’s offstage life, past and present.
As the cast’s other straight characters, Wheeler is empathetic as her Jo is shocked not by what Casey is doing but by his deliberate deception, and Corey makes Eddie an amiable host. But competing with the fabulousness of the show’s drag divas is not easy.
Set designer Lyle Baskin works with the limitations of GableStage’s wide, shallow playing area to create all the locations “Georgia McBride” requires, but this particular effort requires a lot of fussing with scenery. Lighting designer Steve Welsh gets the dingy backstage look, Casey and Jo’s bare-bones apartment and the flashy showcase drag numbers just right, and sound/music designer Matt Corey supplies all those divalicious tunes.
Though “The Legend of Georgia McBride” is among Lopez’s slighter works, and although it’s among GableStage’s frothier efforts, if you’re into light summer fare that also makes you scream with laughter, this one’s for you.
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If You Go
What: "The Legend of Georgia McBride" by Matthew Lopez.
Where: GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through June 25.
Cost: $42-$60 (students $15, Friday-Saturday and Sunday matinee excluded).
Information: 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.