Mark Twain wrote: “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” Matthew Lopez’s Legend of Georgia McBride is a stencil-thin, though often quite funny, variation of this theme.
Young Casey has no boundaries. He could find a silver lining in a hurricane. When he suddenly loses his job as an Elvis impersonator and can’t pay the rent or a stack of overdue bills, he has no problem doling out $12 for a large two-topping pizza.
Casey doesn’t even flinch when his wife Jo announces she’s pregnant. Instead he assures her, “Never mind, everything will be okay.” Not only that, they’ll be “the best parents since Joseph and Mary!”
“Yeah,” Jo replies, “but their kid died.”
The Legend of Georgia McBride won’t honor Jo’s position or any other than Casey’s urge to keep forever on the sunny side.
So, what’s Casey to do? He had to drive 80 miles to Cleo’s, at Panama City Beach, for his uninspired Elvis routine. Plus, along with that pizza, he bought a gleaming white, hip-shaker jumpsuit, which could have paid that month’s rent. Casey’s sympathetic boss, Eddie, gives him back his old job tending bar. And Casey hits a boundary after all: he balks at not being able to follow his dream (though the second coming of Pollyanna, he has an artist’s instinct to stick to his guns).
Enter Miss Tracy Mills, drag queen, with flamboyant cohort Miss Anorexia Nervosa (“It’s Italian”). Tracy’s a stage name. He’s Eddie’s cousin and sees something in Casey that just might work: why not become a drag queen? Casey, who’s been imitating a male sexual icon, hits another boundary. He doesn’t fit the stereotypical check list: he’s straight, doesn’t long to be a woman, etc. How could he make a living pretending to be one?
What follows recalls the education of Gypsy Rose Lee. Tracy’s a glam-decked Mama Rose. Drag is much more than swapping clothes or genders, she says. And not everyone can do it. It’s about creating a persona, finding your distinct voice. Only then can you become drag royalty and earn the title of “queen.”
Since he’s certain everything happens for the best, Casey grows from a reluctant student to accepting his “feminine” side. He learns to lip-sync, discovers a new physical vocabulary, and becomes a drag superstar in an unlikely locale: the Florida panhandle.
Legend’s plot is a lot like Casey: it side-steps and hurdles every barrier, except one. In a set piece that’s almost out of place amid the chipper flow, Miss Nervosa recalls a different route to her crown: taunting and beatings and the courage to stay on the path. “Drag is a protest,” he concludes, “a raised fist inside a sequined glove. Drag is a lot of things, but drag is not for sissies.”
Chesley Polk’s excellent reading of the speech, which grows angrier with each memory, grounds the otherwise lightweight script like the bass line of a musical score. Here and elsewhere, director Sean Murray and his cast add dimension and nuance.
Legend recalls the comedies of Larry Shue (The Foreigner, The Nerd). Both have armadas of one-liners. Possibly a reaction to overselling the jokes — now at near-epidemic proportions in local theater — the cast neither sets them up nor belts them out. The throwaway approach makes for an honest presentation. But it doesn’t give the audience time to savor a line like Tracy’s “The only thing I’m working on tonight is making regrets.”
In a sense, Legend is a hybrid. It’s an ensemble show where almost every character craves the spotlight. Foremost among equals, David McBean’s Tracy Mills is a top-to-toe hoot, eloquently catty, and yet, underneath, suggests scars that only female impersonation can heal. Spencer Bang traces Casey’s arc from Innocence to innocence in nicely modulated steps. Lance Carter, as Eddie, and Alexandra Slade, as Jo, make useful contributions, and Chesley Polk’s “Rexy” Nervosa can do nothing and get a laugh and everything with the same effect.
The Cygnet cast must share the spotlight with the show’s real star. Sean Fanning’s set, with three playing spaces, is deliberately drab so that Jennifer Brawn Gittings’s costumes can shine all the more. Along with Peter Herman’s wigs and make-up, they’re a parade of sequin and ruffles and mountain-peak headdresses, some feathered, others a two-foot-tall citrus showcase. And when you’d swear there’s no way she can top this glitz, for the final number Gittings vaults over the river and out the door with a jaw-dropping spectacle. Hard-sell props to Gittings, to Herman, and to the costume shop, which must have been sewing 24/7 to make each outfit (as Tracy Mills says) a persona in itself.
4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Spencer Bang, Lance Carter, Chesley Polk, Alexandra Slade, David McBean; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Kyle Montgomery; sound, Dylan Nielsen; wigs and make-up, Peter Herman.
Playing through November 12; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; cygnettheatre.com