Review: ‘The Legend of Georgia McBride’ at Round House Theatre

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In The Legend of Georgia McBride, a theatrical cornucopia of camp, country music, drag, domestic dilemmas, and larger-than-life divas await you. This disarming and sexually-charged excursion into the world of drag explores several themes with an eye towards infectious escapism, as directed by Tom Story at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre.

Rick Hammerly, Zack Powell, and Dezi Bing in The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre.

The light-hearted and zesty play (with some serious underlying themes) is a variant on the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady theme but, instead of Henry Higgins mentoring and molding Eliza Doolittle into a lady, we have an experienced drag queen named Miss Tracy Mills (acted by Rick Hammerly with utter verve and adroit comic timing) mentoring and molding a much younger, callow, and inexperienced good ole’ married Southern boy named Casey (a perfectly endearing gauche interpretation by Zack Powell) into the world of drag. Casey’s moniker will soon be the Georgia McBride of the title.

As the story progresses, there are moods and myriad transitions galore as our title character, Casey, awakens to his true feelings about his feminine side amidst much interior confusion. Playwright Matthew Lopez has a few formulaic boilerplate moments of writing but, overall, the audacious musical numbers, southern anecdotes, lively ripostes, and verbal witticisms of the characters keep this play afloat for almost two hours of animated antics and colorful stagecraft.

Playwright Lopez sets his vivid and exciting cabaret numbers against more conventional domestic scenes: Casey’s wife Jo (an earthy performance by Yesenia Iglesias) gets pregnant and is worried about finances, Jo is upset when she learns her husband has been performing drag to make ends meet, and the landlord, Jason (the marvelous actress Dezi Bing in a dual role as she also plays Rexy), is threatening eviction if the rent cannot be paid. The contrast between the daily world of stress and the heightened world of drag creates the dramatic alchemy in the play. Dramaturg Gabrielle Hoyt certainly understands the dynamics of this hard-to-define play.

The expert direction of Tom Story and his cast keep things moving with excellent comic timing, lightning-fast banter, and the innovative “play (or sketch) within a play” concept seen in the musical Gypsy and, more recently, in Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance. This concept implicitly encases the audience as participants in the play as the drag numbers end at “Cleo’s club” and the audience at the Round House Theatre claps as if they are sitting at a table at Cleo’s.

Rick Hammerly in The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre.

Choreography by Matthew Gardiner shines throughout but especially in the middle section of the play where the fourth wall of the stage is opened and one hilarious musical number after another is humorously evoked. Bodies shimmy and shake with gusto as Mr. Gardiner has obviously coached his actors well.

The camp quality in this production has an outgoing and lively feel to it, so credit must be given to Composer/Sound Designer Matthew M. Nielson for choosing such an eclectic mix of sounds for our drag queens to lip-synch and dance to. Rock, country, theatrical, and pop songs are all part of the scintillating mix.

The musical numbers in this section of the play were too numerous to mention but the song “McArthur Park” (the Donna Summer version), as performed by Rick Hammerly, was a knockout punch to the senses. As Mr. Hammerly stared forlornly, crying over his “cake being left out in the rain,” he literally got on all fours searching and crying that “He’d never find that recipe again.” Hysterical indeed.

A country twang and a jaunty, comic air of defiance permeated Mr. Powell’s performance as he lip-synched to Gretchen Wilson’s rendition of “Redneck Woman.” With curlers in his hair and a beer in his hand, Powell’s character of Georgia McBride had the audience interactively clapping along and yelling out responsively to the amusing shenanigans onstage.

Actor Charlie Kevin as Eddie, the owner of the bar/nightclub was delightfully earthy with a droll yet deadpan air that felt extremely right for the character.

Dialect Coach Zachary Campion did a masterful job ensuring that we know we are in the panhandle of Florida as the southern accents were totally convincing.

Yesenia Iglesias and Zack Powell in The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre.

The set design by Misha Kachman vividly and ingeniously displayed the garish colors and tropical hues of the dressing room, the exterior framework of the nightclub, and the home of the characters of Casey and his wife on a revolving set. An interesting touch was having the missing light bulbs on the neon sign advertising the club suddenly flash and light up as the club started making more money.

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz designed with a sexy, sassy, and sartorial eye towards pizzazz and short-cut skirts. Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills shone his spotlight on the drag queens as they performed with appropriate degrees of intensity and immersive pools of light that cast a show-biz sheen to the proceedings.

Perhaps the major touchstones of this play were the serious comments made by the character of Rexy (actress Dezi Bing was totally compelling) as she told of being a victim of violent homophobia yet still carrying on as a proud survivor as she believed drag was not just a campy event, but rather the essence of the drag performer’s very being. Throughout these dramatic moments, it was clear that Director Tom Story was able to successfully weave all the disparate elements of this play into one totally synergistic and cohesively entertaining whole.

The Legend of Georgia McBride is, ultimately, a cheering portrayal of what it means to be fully human and loving while celebrating the positive audacity and triumph of individuality and difference. The Round House Theatre has produced a Legend of Georgia McBride that fully succeeds on all levels.

Running Time: 110 minutes with no intermission.

The Legend of Georgia McBride plays through July 1, 2018, at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 240-644-1100, or purchase them online.

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.