PlayMakers presents The Legend of Georgia McBride, directed by Jeffrey Meanza. Photo of Jamison Stern, Adam Valentine, and Saleemah Sharpe by HuthPhoto.
For years, drag shows have served as a fun, festive way to bring people together and to celebrate diverse forms of self-expression. They’re an explosion of over-the-top fashion, the highest high heels, and creatively contoured makeup. Underlying the light, frothy surface, however, is a history and a legacy that should never be forgotten or taken for granted. After all, drag is, from its roots to its present life, a form of protest, a way of bucking expectations and standing strong against criticism, expectations, and limitations.
These clashing-but-cohesive concepts are all explored in The Legend of Georgia McBride, presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company. Written by Matthew Lopez and directed by Jeffrey Meanza, this production is not just thoughtful, but perfectly timed as well. In an age where, seemingly unbelievably, the legality of drag is being questioned and challenged, the script makes a strong case in defense of not just drag itself but the power and value of true, limitless self-exploration.
The story opens at Cleo’s, a run-down but richly charming bar, in Florida. There, viewers are introduced to Casey (Adam Valentine), a down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator, and the bar’s desperate owner, Eddie (Jeffrey Blair Cornell). While the bar is where most of the story’s action takes place, viewers also get to see Casey in his equally run-down apartment, where he lives with his frustrated wife, Jo (Saleemah Sharpe) under the watchful eye of his best friend turned reluctant landlord, Jason (Jamar Jones).
Thanks to Michael Raiford’s meticulous set design, both of these worlds come to life. The bar set extends out into the audience, allowing viewers to become “patrons” as they sit around tall, green-topped tables. Above them, colorful glass bar lamps dangle from the ceiling, creating a festive, engaging atmosphere. In fact, it’s easy, as the show goes on, for viewers to forget they’re in a theater. At many points throughout the night, it feels like you’re truly at Cleo’s, having a drink and taking in the entertainment. It’s a stark, purposeful contrast to the scenes set in Casey’s bare-bones apartment.
It is in this barren apartment that Casey learns his wife is pregnant and that he absolutely has to get his life together. Fortunately for him, their relationship is one filled with inside jokes, support, and undeniable love. Lopez’s heartfelt dialogue and the cute chemistry between Sharpe and Valentine help solidify this fact. However, the unfortunate side of the coin is that Casey’s days as an Elvis impersonator are over. Eddie has decided to go in a different direction—a drag direction to be exact.
His choice leads Casey to meet and befriend experienced drag queen, Tracy (Jamison Stern). But, when Tracy’s sidekick Rexy (a second character for Jamar Jones) becomes too drunk to perform, Casey is thrust into the unwilling role of drag performer. That first performance leads to more. It also leads to more money for Casey and, even more importantly, a slow but powerful discovery of who he is and where his true values and passions lie.
These are serious themes to explore in a show that clocks in at just under two hours, but this one pulls off the feat, and it does so with much heart, laughter, and well-deserved applause along the way, thanks in large part to the incredible performances. Cornell’s “Eddie” serves as a narrator of sorts, often used to show the passage of time or to fill gaps between big numbers, but that doesn’t mean he’s unimportant . . . not that Cornell would allow him to be. Teeming with charm, energy, and an abundance of accents, he showcases his range as an actor, while also making Eddie a loveable, memorable character all his own.
Similarly, Valentine lends plenty of heart to his fish-out-of-water role, while Sharpe creates a Jo who is unabashedly honest and thoroughly adorable. Then, there’s Stern’s unforgettable, heartfelt turn as Tracy and Jones’ deft double performance, which includes an incredible, powerfully delivered monologue that really gets to the heart of drag and cements the show’s message.
As one would expect, there are also beautiful costumes, courtesy of Asa Benally, which contain all the sequins, sparkles, and pizzazz you could hope for. Plus, nothing beats the celebratory atmosphere. Viewers clap along and even bat a beach ball around the audience at one point. Yet, underneath the fun, the production never loses sight of the script’s core components.
When the curtains close, viewers have been not just entertained, but enlightened. They’ll have seen drag and the brave artists who perform it celebrated, elevated, and explored. And, what they’re ultimately left with is a well-timed story of, as Dolly Parton once said, “find[ing] out who you are, and do[ing] it on purpose.”
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