Northlight Theatre

The Legend of Georgia McBride

At the Northlight Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Skokie –It’s likely that most of the capacity opening night audience at the Northlight Theatre didn’t anticipate having such an exhilarating good time at “The Legend of Georgia Brown.” After all, the show portrays the lives and struggles of a pair of performers trying to eke out a living as drag queen singer-dancers at a sleazy lounge in a small Florida town. Not necessarily a recipe for a thigh-slapping good time.

But the Northlight has pulled it off, thanks to the felicitous contributions of playwright Matthew Lopez, choreographer Chris Carter, director Lauren Shouse, a quartet of creative designers, and a triumphant acting ensemble.

The show starts slowly. Casey (Nate Santana) is a young wannabe performer trying to make his way as an Elvis impersonator on a night club circuit overloaded with Elvis look-alikes. Enter Miss Tracy Mills (Sean Blake), an experienced drag queen performer cut from the RuPaul mode. Eddie, the lounge’s manager (Keith Kupferer), is ready to fire Casey, who is drawing almost zero customers, in the hope that a drag queen would attract some trade.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Tracy’s partner walks out on him/her and Casey reluctantly is pressed into service as a stand-in so that the show can go on. Casey, who is straight and has a wife, unexpectedly has a flair for the drag queen persona and he and Tracy turn out to be a wow team. That extended setup takes about 30 minutes of the intermissionless two-hour show. Most of the rest of the evening consists of a drag show, with hilarious and persuasive cavorting, especially by Casey, lip syncing to recordings by Barbra Streisand (a drag queen’s invaluable inspiration) and sundry other pop and country music singers, along with a song by the late great French chanteuse Edith Piaf.

The Casey-Tracy performances amount to an uninterrupted hour or so of drag queen shtick at its best. The audience totally ate them up and during that segment of the show the Northlight presents maybe the best drag queen display in the theatrical history of the northern suburbs, possibly not an art field with an extensive backlog but still a joy. Santana, a boyish young man, transforms himself into a sassy and credible young female with all the moves and attitude of a performer born to send an audience cheering. And there is convincing work by Jeff Kurysz who is equally convincing as Casey’s straight friend Jason as well as Rexy, the prickly half of Tracy’s act before he/she leaves in a huff.

“Georgia McBride” (the stage name Tracy creates for Casey) is not only wonderfully entertaining, it’s educational. The playwright, using Tracy as a spokesperson, educates the spectators in the drag queen culture, down to the costumes that the males use to transform themselves into females that are both convincing, satirical, and outlandish. The only other mainstream show I can recall taking on the drag queen lifestyle and art (yes, it is a theatrical art) is “La Cage aux Folles.” That Broadway musical has lots of spectacle the limited facilities at the Northlight can’t match, but I liked the Northlight show better for its intimacy and realism.

Perhaps necessarily, “Georgia McBride” has passages of that can be labeled “the triumph of the human spirit.” The chief spokesperson is Tracy, who has endured ridicule and abuse since childhood as a sexual outsider. The show sympathetically portrays sexual outsiders as members of a connected family entitled to tolerance and understanding from the straight world. Those sentiments would be part of the social fabric of this country in a better world, but look around and consider the record.

Still, Blake and Santa are so rousing in their dance routines that I would have sacrificed a few of the anti-bigotry pleas for more stage time for the hoofers. The script devotes several scenes to Casey’s marital difficulties with his wife Jo (Leslie Ann Sheppard), who angrily leaves her  husband after she discovers that he has been starring in a drag show locally for six months without her knowledge. It’s hard to accept that Casey could have kept his employment secret for so long in a small town. That comes across as a playwright’s plot device to stoke Casey’s marital crisis which, to nobody’s surprise, its cheerfully resolved in the show’s feel good final scene. “The Legend of Georgia McBride” isn’t about to send its audience out of the theater forced to swallow an unhappy ending.

The designers have done wonders in carving out credible playing areas (the lounge backstage, Casey’s apartment, and the lounge’s actual stage). So props to Richard and Jacqueline Penrod (scenery), Rachel Laritz (costumes, especially the flaming extravagance of the drag outfits), JR Lederle (lighting), and Kevin O’Donnell (original music and sound). Lauren Shouse keeps the energy level agreeably high and superbly integrates Chris Carter’s high-stepping choreography with the marital conflict and social plea elements of the show.

              Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is one of the happiest shows of the season, up there with “Five Guys Named Moe” at the Court Theatre in Chicago. The acting ensemble fits together perfectly. Sheppard scores highly with basically two major scenes, and gets the biggest laugh of the night when the heavily pregnant Jo wails that her drag-outfitted husband is prettier than she is. Kupferer makes an actual character out of the slender reed of the redneck owner of the lounge who mostly serves as his establishment’s dim master of ceremonies. And Kurysz’s transformations between Casey’s friend and Tracy’s temperamental partner are remarkable in their twin realisms.

Drag performers are usually, but not always gay, but “The Legend of Georgia McBride” doesn’t delve deeply into the sexual aspect of the entertainment. The dialogue is loaded with bitchy gay humor, especially from Tracy, but the script could pass for a PG-13 show except for the salty language. The spectator can’t quarrel with the pleas for tolerance, and if they do, shame on them. The book could have yielded to the temptation for sentimentality and soap preaching that would undercut the entertainment values of the show, but Lopez and Shouse and the performers play to the show’s strength’s, the uproarious drag queen act. If the viewer leaves the Northlight with a greater tolerance for people who may have sexual preferences outside the mainstream, so much the better.

The show gets a rating of 3½  stars.

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” runs through October 22 at the Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard. Most performances are Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $81. Call 847 673 6300 or visit www.northlight.org.

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