By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
It’s obvious that any show bedazzled with jokes about Barbra Streisand, Sweeney Todd and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof is a show at which I am going to have a hootin’, hollerin’, helluva good time.
As so it is with barebones production’s Pittsburgh premiere of The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez.
The Legend of Georgia McBride continues at barebones productions through March 17. Braddock, www.barebonesproductions.com
Casey is a young man with big problems. As if living in the Florida panhandle isn’t challenging enough, his financial condition is even more barren. His job as an Elvis impersonator just isn’t the big draw down at Cleo’s Bar that he had hoped. He keeps bouncing the rent check, only adding to the stress currently stressing out his wife Jo. She’s the non-nonsense, clear-eyed member of the marriage and the great love she feels for Casey is equal to the fear she harbors for their future. Which suddenly become even more pronounced when she discovers she is pregnant. There’s no doubt she and Casey will love the kid, but will they be able to afford to raise it?
That question is thrown into even starker relief when Eddie, the owner of the bar, fires Casey – due to lack of audience – and hires his own cousin, a drag queen named Tracy who hopes to build up Cleo’s as the premiere drag venue of the Florida panhandle. (One would assume the competition for the title isn’t all that robust.)
Casey agrees to stay on as a bartender because he needs the cash. But, through a Janet Gaynor/Ruby Keeler/Shirley MacLaine turn of events, Casey is forced into a dress and out on stage to replace a fallen drag queen … and due to the immutable laws of theater becomes the overnight drag sensation, Georgia McBride! And, just because every play needs conflict, Casey doesn’t tell Jo how he’s suddenly bringing in all this money.
That’s a lot of plot! And it all happens in the first 15 minutes of this 95 minute show. Lopez may utilize just about every showbiz cliché in the playwright’s book but, ultimately, I’m not sure if that, or if Lopez would consider that, a criticism.
The Legend of Georgia McBride is definitely an instance where the sum of its parts is far greater than the whole.
Those “parts” include a veritable smorgasbord of jokes; lowbrow humor, outrageous camp, inside theater jokes, bitchy shade … Lopez is a very funny writer and hasn’t the slightest difficulty sending us off into fits of laughter.
Another “part” is the drag performances. Big chunks of the show are Tracy and Casey performing their acts. Shua Potter, as Tracy is not just an extraordinarily gifted musical comedy performer, he’s a gifted drag performer as well and between the two makes his lip-synced numbers outlandishly fun. With both a seriousness of purpose and an audacious sense of camp, Potter sends these sequences heavenward.
Andrew Swackhammer plays Casey/Georgia and immediately wins us over as the newbie transforming into a star (in a scene, um, honoring Louise’s blossoming into Gypsy Rose Lee.) Swackhammer isn’t possessed by the inner showgirl that Potter is, but he brings a compelling sense of discovery to role.
With Angela Vesco’s non-stop parade of eye-popping quick change costumes (I wonder if there’s any Velcro left in Pittsburgh,) and LaTrea Derome’s fun and funny choreography these cabaret numbers are hugely entertaining.
It’s only when (and even if) you pull back that the “whole” seems less than successful. In addition to his reliance on cliché, Lopez is a big fan of an easy sentimentality which feels at odds with the biting, bitchy humor elsewhere in the show.
While never offensive, the politics are perhaps a little unevolved and it isn’t until very late in the show that Lopez addresses the issue of a cisgender straight man mopping up praise as a drag queen. It comes via an electrifying monologue, delivered with plenty of electricity by Justin Lonesome who almost makes it seem organic to the show and not grafted on.
But I would urge you to not focus on any of that and, instead, just enjoy Lopez’ humor and the musical hijinks of Potter and Swackhammer.
Because, as a bonus, you’ll also be treated to additional performances guided with integrity and honesty by director Patrick Jordon.
Sara Williams is a deeply felt presence as Jo, juggling the love she feels for her husband, her churning worry for the future and her own sense of self-awareness. And David Conrad plays the oily, smarmy club owner Eddie with whacked-out humor and a sly intelligence.
C’mon – can you ever see too many Liza Minnelli queens singing “Ring Them Bells?”
I thought not.