Playwright Matthew Lopez has received wide acclaim for his work, especially for 2018’s The Inheritance, heralded as “best play” by more than one critic when it bowed that year. But before that play, Lopez also wrote The Whipping Man (which appeared some seasons ago at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe) and The Legend of Georgia McBride, which currently can be seen at FST’s Gompertz Theatre.
It’s a much lighter and slighter work than The Inheritance, but it also touches on aspects of being gay or different from societal norms with its story about a down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator named Casey (Britt Michael Gordon), who is not himself gay, but is drawn into the world of drag queens when his employer, bar owner Eddie (Eric Hoffman), informs him that the Elvis gig just isn’t drawing in patrons anymore. Forced to tend bar instead, to support himself and his newly pregnant wife Jo (Tatiana Williams), Casey is supplanted by Eddie’s cousin, a drag artist styling himself as Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) and fellow queen Rexy (Stanley Martin)….until the night when Rexy drinks way over the limit and passes out before the next show.
Since you can’t have a show with just one drag queen, as Tracy says, Casey is the only alternative to step into Rexy’s high-heeled shoes. Tracy comes up with the drag name Georgia McBride for him and teaches a crash course in How to be a Drag Queen, which largely amounts to lip-syncing to Edith Piaf and waving his arms.
At first, Casey is understandably reluctant. But when the crowds start coming in droves to see the queens (which seems improbable for a bar in Panama City, Florida, but then that’s where Lopez is from, so he oughta know), he can’t turn down the money. Unfortunately, he also can’t bring himself to tell his wife, and that’s gonna cause problems.
While Act I of The Legend of Georgia McBride sets up these characters and situations, Act II gives much of its time to actual lip-syncing performances to songs by such other legends as Judy Garland, Dolly Parton/Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand, upping the ante on the flamboyant costumes (by Lea Umberger) and the convincing choreography (by BillyD Hart). They’re fun, and excellently executed, although it might have been OK to cut one of them in order to get back to the story and trim the overall running time of the show.
Gordon and Swartz give their all to these performances, though, and both also get their chances to reveal a little bit about what drives their characters and about their insecurities and needs. Lopez’s dialogue can range from all-out funny to poignant quicker than a queen can don a wig, but there are moments when the play (under the direction of Kate Alexander) feel like it’s pushing too hard.
But then, full disclosure: The night I attended the show, the deafening enthusiasm of several audience members near me served to somewhat dampen my own. They came in ready to cheer from the opening scene, which didn’t help to establish a gradual build to the show itself.
The Legend of Georgia McBride doesn’t aim for subtlety, though. It’s all out there, and that just may be your thing. The show continues through May 22; for tickets, call (941) 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.