“Drag is a lot of things, baby, but drag is not for sissies,” or so I learned watching Boston University School of Theater’s production of “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” directed by Kolton Bradley.
The story follows Casey, a run-of-the-mill southerner played by Kendall McShane, barely getting by on his salary as an Elvis impersonator at Cleo’s bar in the Florida Panhandle. His wife, Jo, played by Tori Omoregie, has just broken the news that she is pregnant.
To make matters worse, Casey’s old friend and landlord Jason, played by Charlie Berger, has just about evicted the couple, demanding rent money under the guise of a pain-in-the-ass wife and their needy children, though he can’t seem to remember how many of them he even has.
When bar owner Eddie, played by Sam Regueros, replaces his Elvis act with that of two drag queens — Ms. Tracy Mills, played by Julian X, and Ms. Anorexia “Rexy” Nervosa, played by Nick Zuluaga — Casey must transform into his own drag persona, Georgia McBride, if he wants to stay afloat.
But even after he sheds his over-gelled Elvis-esque locks, slips a sparkly red dress on over a corset and a pair of fake boobs and perfects his lip-syncing to Édith Piaf’s “Padam, Padam,” Casey can’t seem to come to terms with the joy he derives from becoming Georgia McBride for a crowd full of people each night. At this point, it’s made painfully clear that no amount of sass or swiveling hips will bring Casey peace, not until he begins to accept himself.
Complete with a smoke machine to mimic the burning scent of cigarettes, circular restaurant tables replacing a front row and a beaten-down wooden stage, the College of Fine Arts’ Studio One became Cleo’s bar this past Saturday, filled with an audience eager to see some drag magic happen. Suffice it to say they were obliged.
McShane, X and Zuluaga shined in an array of glittery dresses, wigs and colorful makeup looks, thanks to costume designer Gabe Bagdazian, makeup designer Evan Johnson and wig designer Emma George.
McShane exhibited true talent in his ability to jump back and forth between three personas — the childishly hopeful Casey, the jumpsuit-cladden King of Rock and the sassy powerhouse that is Georgia McBride. Even more indicative of his skill set, throughout the show he played guitar, sang and completed cheeky choreography in heels I couldn’t even dream of walking in.
The relationship between Jo and Casey, made believable by the actors’ natural chemistry, was put under a microscope when Jo, after finding out that Casey was doing drag for months, threw him out, confused as to why a straight man would want to do drag.
But the play was blackly funny even at points of tension, and was able to avoid those awkward silences born of a joke that just barely crosses over the line from comedy to controversy. The role dark humor would play in the story was made obvious early on, when Rexy first entered the bar and exclaimed in disgust, “Anne Frank would have said hell nah to this place!”
While Alexis Soloski wrote in The Guardian that the original production, “wimps out, leaving questions of gender and sexuality uncomplicated and unexplored,” this did not hold true in Saturday’s production. Perhaps thanks to Bradley’s direction, the play stays lighthearted — with a full-fledged and interactive musical experience — but not in a way that feels exploitative of LGBTQ+ culture. The 2D setting of Casey’s home, contrasted with Cleo’s bar, showed the dichotomy between two aspects of one man’s identity, adding nuance to a script that may have lacked it.
While Jo and Casey’s reconciliation in the second act felt a bit hasty, the drag performance that wrapped up the show made up for it, bringing the entirety of Studio One to its feet.
Nearly every person in that room was clapping, whistling and cheering in admiration as the full cast, even Jason, Jo and Eddie, put on matching tasseled one-pieces and performed to “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyonce. Streamers replaced the stage’s red curtain, dollar bills were thrown in the air and confetti cannons erupted, making the last 20 minutes of the show nothing short of a party.
Sitting next to me during the show was Enzo Gonzales, a first year directing student studying a Master of Fine Arts at BU. He explained during intermission that theater as a whole has moved toward existing within the audience, rather than the confines of a stage. And if there is any show that showcases this incredible evolution, it’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride.”
Correction: After the publishing of this article the spelling of Nick Zuluaga has been fixed, the attribution of the quote from the show about Anne Frank has been changed from Tracy to Rexy and Beyonce has replaced Rihanna as the artist of “Run the World (Girls).”