by Gail M. Burns
“What you see is what you get!”
That was the catch phrase of Flip Wilson’s Geraldine, one of America’s favorite drag characters, and it perfectly embodies drag as an art form. Geraldine both did and did not exist, she was Wilson and she was not.
In the Dorset Theatre Festival’s production of The Legend of Georgia McBride, Matthew Lopez’ new comedy about a young straight man whose discovery that he is a drag queen literally saves his marriage, what you see – a spectacular ninety minutes of very moving comedy brilliantly performed and directed – is exactly what you get.
The minute you enter the theatre in Dorset you are greeted by an air of excitement. Strings of colored lights swoop across the ceiling down toward the stage (just the start of Zach Blane’s dazzling lighting design.) A sign upstage welcomes you to Cleo’s in Panama Beach, Florida and songs like “One Night in Margaritaville” and “Tequila Sunrise” set the scene for the tacky booze-fest that occurs in such clubs. The opening minutes of the show introduce the central character, Casey (Joey Taranto), doing a mediocre Elvis impression on Cleo’s stage. The fact that he can’t earn enough to pay the rent from this gig is immediately obvious. His wife Jo (Vasthy Mompoint) is exasperated with his lack of responsibility and his oblivious optimism, and reality socks them both in the gut when, a few minutes later, a home pregnancy test reveals that they are expecting.
Cleo’s owner, Eddie (Denny Dale Bess), is as desperate as Casey for the club to turn a profit, and so he calls on his cousin Bobby to bring in his drag act. Bobby arrives in his drag persona, Miss Tracy Mills (David Turner), with her partner, the erratic and seldom sober Miss Anorexia Nervosa aka Rexy (Jon Norman Schneider), and Casey is demoted to bartender. Until one night when Rexy has one too many and passes out…and a new drag star is born.
Casey’s transformation into Miss Georgia McBride occupies the center slice of the show and offers a fascinating glimpse into what it takes to develop a new identity physically and psychologically. I say a glimpse because Casey’s transitions in and out of drag are lightning fast. When I read the script I was terrified that Lopez had written a play that would literally be impossible to stage because he had not built in enough time for the costume changes, but director Stephen Brackett has choreographed them to the last second, and thanks to Bobby Frederick Tilley’s flexible (and stunning!) costumes, a drag-savvy cast (shout out to Judy Bowman Casting), and expert dressers, they all go off without a hitch. The dressers to appear on stage occasionally, briefly, and inconspicuously and it seems perfectly normal that Tracy and Georgia would have assistance with their changes.
“Drag ain’t a hobby, baby. Drag ain’t a night job. Drag is a protest. Drag is a raised fist inside a sequined glove. Drag is a lot of things, baby, but drag is not for sissies.”
– Matthew Lopez
Still, Taranto’s first appearance as the fully formed Georgia is gasp-inducing. She is gorgeous! (There are no production photos of his full transformation so you will just have to go and see for yourself.) And Taranto is unrecognizable, even though you watch him remove her and turn back into him right before your eyes, they remain two distinct people. Taranto performed in drag on Broadway in the original cast of Kinky Boots, so he is completely comfortable sprinting around in towering stilettos that would break my ankles in a second.
Equally gasp-inducing is the brief scene in which Tracy appears as Bobby. This huge presence is suddenly this small, quiet man. (Again, no production photos of that moment but Turner can be seen out of drag in the rehearsal cast photo.) While Casey is billed as the lead role, as far as I was concerned Turner’s Tracy was the star of the show and it’s heart. He handles the majority of the lip synch numbers (kudos to Ryan Rumery for the excellent sound design) and an astonishing number of costume changes.
As I watched Turner perform his first big number – “Hey Big Spender” from Sweet Charity vividly choreographed by Patrick McCullom – I realized that I have only been exposed to nice safe sanitized G-rated drag, and that watching what was definitely merely PG-13 was quite shocking to me. I have definitely got to expand my horizons and go see a real drag show. Which way to Cleo’s?
Bess is ideal as the sleazy middle-aged club boss with the heart of gold, and Mompoint is warm and relatable as Jo. For a variety of reasons Casey finds it impossible to say to Jo that he is performing drag, and she finds out by accident on a chance visit to the club when she is six months pregnant. Her struggle to come to grips with her husband’s duplicity and his new identity as Georgia is slightly truncated, but ultimately winning. The one thing that makes me sad as a cisgender straight woman like Jo is how marginalized we are in the drag world. Women do drag too, adopting both male personae – three cheers for Melissa McCarthy! – and drag queen identities – Madonna and Cher are excellent examples. I was glad Brackett gave Mompoint a dance solo in a snazzy outfit in the final number because drag is also a celebration of the universal feminine.
Schneider is equally impressive both in drag as Rexy (I seriously covet those hot pink fishnets with the barber pole swirls and the poison green patent leather heels!) and in a dual role as a straight dude named Jason, who is Casey and Jo’s beleaguered landlord. Lopez has given both characters some of the most important lines in the show – Rexy’s ferocious defense of his identity as a drag queen, and Jason’s confession that, before his marriage, he was deeply in love with a trans woman.
I can’t think of a production where the vital importance of each and every member of the company is so apparent. While standing ovations are nauseatingly ubiquitous these days, when the audience I attended with leapt to their feet at the curtain call the impetus was genuine and the accolade well-earned. I would have been delighted to keep cheering if the set , costume, lighting and sound designers had bounded out on stage, along with the director and the choreographer and the stage manager and the dressers and…and…and… Talk about your well-oiled machine! This production is firing on all cylinders.
I attended a matinee, performances generally patronized by older theatre goers, and as I walked out I heard many interesting snippets of conversation in which people unused to discussing drag and gender identity and such struggled to find the words to describe their thoughts while maintaining their own facades of genteel propriety. This is good. These are things we need to think and talk about more. We need to recognize the common humanity underneath whatever persona we are wearing today.
What you see may be what you get only because that’s what you’re expecting. What you see is usually only the tip of the iceberg.
The Dorset Theatre Festival’s production of The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez, directed by Stephen Brackett, runs August 3-19, 2017, at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road in Dorset, Vermont. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Choreography by Patrick McCullom, set design by, Lee Savage costume design by Bobby Frederick Tilley, lighting design by Zach Blane, sound design by Ryan Rumery, stage manager Will Rucker. CAST: Denny Dale Bess as Eddie; Joey Taranto as Casey; Vasthy Mompoint as Jo; David Turner as Miss Tracy Mills; and Jon Norman Schneider as Rexy and Jason.
The box office may be reached by calling (802) 867-2223 ext 2 Tuesday through Saturday 12-6pm (8pm on performance days). For more information, or to purchase tickets online, visit Dorset Theatre Festival’s website at dorsettheatrefestival.org.