Curtain Call: Drag queen McBride is no Tootsie

There have been many plays and movies about drag queens. Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie comes to mind because it was a huge hit. Of course, the plot was about a male actor who couldn’t land a role until he dressed up like a woman and changed his name, but he was still a straight guy in a woman’s clothing. When La Cage Aux Folles came around, audiences experienced a character portrayed as a real drag queen rather than a straight man. Now, Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride playing at Theaterworks in Hartford adds something different to the understanding of the drag queen experience. It is not like Tootsie.
McBride is an Elvis impersonator. Though a trained actor, he can’t bring in audiences with his Presley routine. The bar owner who hired him has decided to bring in drag queens and unless McBride is willing to serve bar, he’s out of a job. As fate would have it, Rexy, one of the drag queens is such a drunk that he/she passes out cold just before the show goes on. McBride is asked to take her place, but he’s ashamed and embarrassed to do so. He talks himself into accepting that he is an actor just playing a role. This premise is a lot like Tootsie.
Both characters also hide from their significant others the fact that they are in drag. McBride and his pregnant wife, Jo are on the verge of eviction when he discovers that this new gig is very lucrative. Still, he doesn’t tell her what he’s actually doing. He’s still a straight man acting like a drag queen. It is when his mentor Miss Tracy Mills and Rexy extraordinaire explain what it is really like to be born differently from straight guys that McBride begins to understand more fully what he is doing. That his wife stops by to surprise him also lends itself to the climax. McBride suddenly finds that he has a choice to make.
What works so well for this Theaterworks’ production is that the cast is terrific. J. Tucker Smith as the bar owner is such a regular guy that it’s impossible not to believe his performance as he awkwardly announces the descriptions of various drag queen numbers. Austin Thomas as Casey, Elvis impersonator turned Georgia McBride, gives a sterling performance with plenty of shine. When Casey comes into his own drag persona, the stage comes alive.
This is not really a musical, although there is plenty of music. The entertainers lip sync the featured songs. They do it very well and the song choices are terrific. Jamison Stern as Miss Tracy Mills delivers a powerhouse performance, as does Nik Alexander, who plays Rexy the drunk drag queen so well that most of the audience doesn’t realize that Alexander is also playing landlord Jason. What a double treat.
Playing wife Jo, Smaria Nixon-Fleming is solid in her portrayal of Casey’s wife. One of the best lines she delivers comes when she accepts Casey’s new identity, but with a tearful “You’re prettier than I am.”  
Ultimately, this is about tolerance for gender differences, but there’s something distinctly different about McBride from Tootsie. McBride feels like a real woman when he is on stage and he loves it.
The production has a great set designed by Paul Tate dePoo III that moves from stage to apartment easily. Ralph Perkins’ choreography is lively and captures humor as well. Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are wickedly good and lighting design and sound design by John Lasiter and Ed Chapman, respectively, are spot on. The play is directed by Rob Ruggiero, the artistic director of the theater and a Broadway director as well. Ruggiero is a director’s director.
The production plays through April 22. Box office: 860-527-7838.
Joanne Greco Rochman is a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected].