THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE is not a show about drag queens. Not really. I mean, of course it is. The whole premise is spelled out for us in the press materials:
“He’s young, he’s broke, his landlord’s knocking at the door, and he’s just found out his wife is going to have a baby. To make matters even more desperate, Casey is fired from his gig as an Elvis impersonator in a run-down, small-town Florida bar. When the bar owner brings in a B-level drag show to replace his act, Casey learns that necessity is the mother of reinvention and that he has a whole lot to learn about show business – and himself.”
It’s not much of a spoiler to anyone who’s seen the press photos or heard the buzz about the show to assume what happens next. But to focus on the drag aspect of the play is a mistake.
It’s hard not to, of course, with Cincinnati’s favorite leading man, Bruce Cromer, in high heels. It’s equally hard with Darnell Pierre Benjamin vamping it up in his near-show stealing performance as “Rexy.” And when every-man Michael Gerard Carr finally embraces his new identity as the title character all bets are off.
During the emotional climax of the play, I began contemplating the magic and mystique of Halloween. For one night a year, many people dress up in extravagant costumes, impersonating someone they admire or wish they could be. Those folks are casual pretenders; “Casey,” the main character in this story, dresses like Elvis Presley every night. It’s more than a jumpsuit and a wig, though. He wants to be Elvis, at least in part. So much that he drives forty-five minutes every night to become The King.
I think about the world of professional wrestling, which I have been immersed in for close to twenty years. How many men and women do I know who develop a character and become that persona in the ring . . . and how many of them begin to live as that new personality outside of the ring, too? I thought about some specific people I know who take it to extremes. Like Casey, they do it to be someone better than themselves, at least in their own minds.
This intensely profound insight is what makes this silly-on-the-surface play about wigs, makeup, and gender-bending something much more interesting. The themes and ideas revealed during the hour and forty-five minute runtime rocked my world at times. Anyone who thinks Ensemble Theatre has opened the season with just a comedy is missing some brilliant insights from playwright Matthew Lopez.
I suspect Carr, who is from a theatre family, may understand how it feels to take on a character who is not your own and live vicariously through that experience. He plays Casey as a natural charmer, a typical “straight” guy, as it were. And his very sincere, yet hilarious transformation into the confident, “perfect” McBride is believable. It’s a very good performance.
“Bruce Cromer in a dress” is a great gimmick to sell tickets, of course. But anyone who’s studied his work knows that his physicality as an actor could either make or break this production. His acting is usually quite masculine, very strong. But he is infinitely talented. I wonder how much influence “dragologist” Ray “Raven” Payne, choreographer Patti James, and director D. Lynn Myers all had in helping him draw out his femininity. Whatever the formula was, it worked as I quickly forgot that I was watching Ebenezer Scrooge in stilettos.
Darnell Pierre Benjamin, one of our cities underutilized talents, gives his best character work to date in two distinct roles in this play. He lets loose with a ton of sass and fantastic dance moves (especially because he’s in heels!) That work is contrasted with an understated performance as secondary character (“Jason”). We need to see Benjamin on stage more often.
The cast is completed by the always solid Michael Bath, who plays the owner of the club. He gets some big laughs for his outrageous outfits, but more importantly his transformation from reluctant show host to a confident master of ceremonies is subtle and well done. Margaret Ivey plays “Jo,” Casey’s wife. Her emotional investment in him and their relationship along with her natural, hilarious, and honest reactions anchor the show.
The set and lighting by Brian C. Mehring is up to his usual standards, which far exceeds reasonable expectations. Costume designer Brian Horton does a wonderful job in a show where all eyes are on his work. Payne, who also designed the wigs and make up has done amazing work, especially with the wigs. And Lynn Meyers keeps everything on the rails with her mature direction.
Audiences will likely rave about how hilarious the show is. You’ll hear how “fun” it is and that it’s a “must-see.” All of that is true. But don’t overlook the depth, the warmth, and the profound truth that Lopez’s script belies. It’s a deceptively thoughtful play.
THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE runs through September 25th at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. It will not be extended, no matter how quickly it sells out, due to the tightened schedule of the theatre due to construction so GET. YOUR. TICKET. NOW. More information can be found here.