THEATER REVIEW: The Legend of Georgia McBride at the Arden is Drag 101

Matthew Lopez’s middle-of-the-road comedy doesn’t get below the surface sparkle.

Matteo Scammell, Dito van Reigersberg, and Mikéah Ernest Jennings in The Legend of Georgia McBride. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Matteo Scammell, Dito van Reigersberg, and Mikéah Ernest Jennings in The Legend of Georgia McBride. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Can an edgy, cult art form be reimagined for mainstream audiences? Should it be?

I pondered this while watching The Legend of Georgia McBride, Matthew Lopez’s middle-of-the-road comedy about drag performance. Listening to the wildly enthusiastic audience who whooped and cheered through the final scene and curtain call, their answer was obvious. For me, not so much.

Lopez’s play is set in a cheesy nightclub in Panama City, Florida, where Casey (Matteo Scammell) is barely making a living as an Elvis impersonator.  When the bar suddenly becomes a venue for drag performance, Casey (soon to be a father) is out of a job — unless he’s willing to join the cast in a new drag persona. Voilà, Georgia McBride is born, under the watchful eye of the mother hen of this operation, Miss Tracy Mills (Dito van Reigersberg).

Director Emmanuelle Delpech delivers a visually imaginative production (kudos especially to Jorge Cousineau’s revolving door set) with plenty of sparkle. She doesn’t dig below the play’s slick surface, but there’s not much to find.  Scammell is an appealing and very sexy actor, who throws himself fully into the title role (and frequently appears in his underwear, which is welcome sight).  He’s good at finding Casey’s inner Cracker Barrel, although this is one of several troubling clichés in Lopez’s script.  It’s not Scammell’s fault that the show’s central premise — a hot straight guy reluctantly falls into female impersonation and finds he’s good at it — peters out (you should forgive the expression) early on.

What remains is an entertaining but superficial celebration of drag performance that’s always in a major key.  The two characters who stand apart from this world — Casey’s girlfriend, Jo (Jessica M. Johnson) and the club owner, Eddie (Damien J. Wallace) — have a few decent bits, well-delivered here, but mostly they’re window-dressing.

The show ought to offer an ideal forum for van Reigersberg, who is an experienced drag performer — as Martha Graham Cracker, his alter ego, he’s a Philadelphia icon. But here, in a different drag persona (on his first entrance, van Reigersberg appears to be channeling Delta Burke in Designing Women), he seems off his game and in a world of his own.

Dito van Reigersberg in The Legend of Georgia McBride. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Dito van Reigersberg in The Legend of Georgia McBride. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

But then, nothing about Georgia McBride cuts deep. In the work of great drag performers, there is nuance, sophistication, and sly humor. Also an underlying sense heartbreak (it’s not an accident that Judy Garland and Edith Piaf are so often the subjects of drag hommage).  You won’t know it from watching this.

Shortly before the end, a secondary drag queen character named Rexy (played by Mikéah Ernest Jennings in what is the best acting and the best drag in this production) delivers an impassioned speech that finally tackles drag with some depth, including its long, angry, proud history. But in this context, it rings false. The previous 80 minutes has been filled with stereotypes and low comedy —Lopez hasn’t earned the right to be an advocate. 

The Legend of Georgia McBride can be recommended to audiences of all ages. Despite some raw language, it’s unlikely to shock or offend anyone. And that’s the problem.

The Legend of Georgia McBride plays through November 27. For more information, visit the Arden Theatre website.

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