The Legend of Georgia McBride, by Matthew Lopez. Directed by Stephen Brackett. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Joey Taranto as Casey, David Turner as Miss Tracy Mills; photo: Gerry Goldstein
". . .like an ice cream migraine."
David Turner; photo: Gerry Goldstein
When Elvis Presley interpretor Casey is fired from his gig at Cleo's Bar in Panama City Beach, Florida, he is compelled to take any job he can find to keep the wolf from the door and his young wife safe. He turns to bartending, disturbed to learn that he has been replaced on stage by two drag queens who bring their act to town. One of them, Miss Tracy Mills, is the nephew of the bar's owner, Eddie, who is uncertain how this change will turn around his business. The new act is wildly successful in the working-class town beach bar and it seems that Casey is doomed to work for low-end tips.
However, Tracy's associate, Miss Anorexia Nervosa (Rexy) goes on a bender and the bar is short one drag act. Hastily Casey is thrown into a dress and a wig and sent out on stage to lip-sybc an Edith Piaf song he's never even heard of. Awkwardly, a star is born.
Matthew Lopez, the author of the play, is best known locally for his Civil War drama, "The Whipping Man," and with this play he takes a 180 degree swerve into a very different sort of world. While the play is often derivative, it is so in a very good way. Everything works for these folks in the sleazy bar in the author's home town. And everything certainly worked for the opening night audience in rural Dorset, Vermont.
Casey's wife, Jo, is played by the extremely beautiful Vasthy Mompoint. From her first entrance it is clear that Casey, or any man, would be attracted to her. Jo is smart and snappy and very much in love with her "show-biz" husband who insists he is the embodiment of Elvis. Their relationship is one of choice and devotion and she plays those aspects for all they're worth from start to finish. When she feels she has been betrayed by Casey her indignation is as on target as was he faith in his possibilities. Casey's problem in the play is in telling his wife how he now earns a living, a good living, since up until turning to drag he has never been able to support them adequately. The dramatics in the play are centered in this relationship and it works well due to the honest sincerity with which Mompoint plays her role. You never doubt for an instant that she means what she says.
Denny Dale Bess, Jon Norman Schneider; photo: Gerry Goldstein
Denny Dale Bess plays Eddie, the somewhat unscrupulous bar owner who is, himself, redeemed by the drag act he brings into his very straight, blue-collar bar. Throughout the play, which runs an uninterrupted one hour and seven minutes, we watch Eddie recreate himself slowly both from the inside and on the outside. A basically unlikeable character becomes adorable as Bess plays him.
Rexy is played by Jon Norman Schneider in ways that would make Rita Moreno blush with pride. Rexy is, to be specific, a bitch. She adores Miss Tracy Mills and abhors everyone else. She has a roller-skate ballet (remember Streisand in the film of "Funny Girl") that is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Schneider is remarkably male-assertive in his female guise and the inevitable madness that produces is worth the ticket price.
On one of the best tacky sets in recent memory Lee Savage creates three places, including an apartment, a dressing room and a stage, where no one I know would like to be found. The three spots work wonderfully for this play and I would journey back to this bar anytime to watch folks cavort in them.
Likewise the outrageous costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley are just what the doctor ordered for these characters. They include an evening gown that does its own sort of magic and an Elvis outfit that even Liberace might not have been willing to wear. Zach Blane's excellent lighting and Ryan Rumery's excellent sound design turn this play about uneasy relationships into something very special.
Most special are the performances by David Turner and Joey Taranto. Under the clear and clean direction by Stephen Brackett, these two deliver star turns in each scene. Brackett has provided each actor in the play with special moments and each one delivers their provisions with talent and marvelous clarity.
Turner is every bit the woman in his scenes, but there is always the underlying certainty that his choices are his own and not those of a fictional female. Years of experience of working and living openly in drag have provided Tracy with a unique perspective and the star delivers to her new protegee all that experience has taught her. She is tender and strong, rich in faith in her life and rich in her belief in others and their choices. Frankly, Turner made me wish that Tracy was a friend of mine.
Taranto's adventure as Casey into a weird and exotic world is as funny and as heartwarming as can be. From his first two scenes of anguish to his final moments of glory the actor brings dynamic life to his role, or roles, for he becomes Miss Georgia McBride. His opening sequence performing Piaf in the bar reminded me of Natalie Wood's awkward growth from talentless Louise into Miss Gypsy Rose Lee in the film of "Gypsy." Taranto's first foray is so wonderlfully awkward and his final rendition of the tune is so dramatically overstated; whether you want to or not you find yourself cheering on this man who is not gay but is game enough to undertake this transformation professionally.
This is one of the best new plays I've seen this year and there have been some marvelous plays out there, particularly at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. But cheers and bravos do not abound elsewhere as they did in Dorset. Sometimes the sweetness imposed on a play such as this one can bring on the "ice-cream migraine" mentioned in the play, but sometimes its just too delicious not to indulge and risk the consequences. This is a very special piece of theater.
Joey Tartantino; photo: Gerry Goldstein
The Legend of Georgia McBride plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, VT through August 19. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line at dorsettheatrefestival.org