Summer may be ending, but drag queens are hot right now -- and you can find them at the Bus Barn Theatre during the Los Altos Stage Company's run of "The Legend of Georgia McBride."
Set in the Florida panhandle, "The Legend of Georgia McBride" tells the improbable, but charming, story of a heterosexual Elvis impersonator who falls down on his luck -- and face first into a pair of extra-long fake lashes. Casey (Michael Weiland), a man with an under-explained Elvis obsession, has been lip syncing to Elvis recordings at Cleo's Bar on the beach to help make ends meet -- until one day, the ends stop meeting. After splurging on a Papa John's pizza makes the rent check bounce and his wife, Jo (Ashley Jaye), informs him that they are expecting, Casey puts his misplaced optimism on a brand new, blinged-out jumpsuit that he's sure will bring new patrons to the bar.
Unfortunately for Casey, with the establishment failing, bar owner Eddie (Todd Wright) has had to make some changes: He's nixing the Elvis act in favor of drag queens with his cousin, Tracy Mills (Jeffrey Adair) and her friend "Rexy" (the delightfully sassy Michael Saenz) as the stars. Casey is allowed to stay on as bartender until Rexy (short, of course, for "Anorexia Nervosa") falls down drunk while preparing for her Edith Piaf act, and Eddie tells Casey he has five minutes to get into a dress or else he's fired. In a montage of scenes in which we see Casey blossom, the drag queen Georgia McBride is born.
The Los Altos cast and crew manage admirably with a script that is very flawed -- while the quips are shady and the characters are lovable, it's written with a big-budget theater (or a magician) in mind: The playwright, Matthew Lopez, whisks characters in and out of drag at the drop of a hat -- but the constraints of reality make the scene changes feel impossibly long. That's unfortunate, because the actors do their best to make the scenes themselves feel fast-paced and upbeat; however, the lulls in between each scene mean that the actors must start from scratch each time the lights come up to bring the room back up to full energy.
Weiland is charming, both in drag and out, and gives both Casey and Georgia an earnestness that makes you root for him (them?) from the start. Of particular note, however, is Wright's transformation from playing the gruff bar owner to serving some "sickening" -- that is, amazing -- emcee realness. While his character's metamorphosis is mostly about showing the passage of time and the success of the bar, he plays his role with such sincerity and enthusiasm that you can't help but fall in love with him. And while Adair and Saenz both nail their comedic moments, it's the serious moments that make them most endearing. When Adair reflects on the "next 20 years" of Tracy's life, or Saenz shares about the price Rexy has paid to be a queen -- and how being a queen was not a choice -- those are the moments when this show feels the most real and honest. From a dramaturgical perspective, Jo feels mostly like she was written into the show to facilitate Casey's development and create a moment of climax, but Jaye does her best to give her three dimensions. One question that came up for me was the choice for Jo not to have an accent. I understand that she was from Tallahassee and had aspirations to leave the panhandle, but with all of the men affecting such strong Southern accents, Jo's lack of accent felt out of place.
The set, designed by Randy Wong-Westbrooke, is delightfully tacky -- and evocative of a dive bar in Florida, complete with multicolored Christmas lights as the "stage lighting." (And although Tracy complains that the dressing room is her version of hell, having personally gotten in character in the storage closet of a dive bar, I can say from experience that their backstage area is relatively palatial.) Y. Sharon Peng's costumes helped set the stage for some dive bar drag, although I would have loved to have seen more rhinestones, glitter and glam, especially as Cleo is transformed into a gay mecca, complete with a bubble machine and real stage lights. (As many queens will tell you of their glittery costumes, "It costs a lot to look this cheap!")
This show would have been a great opportunity to do some audience education: Many people came in expecting a theater show, when what they needed was an audience that has been to a drag bar or two. The drag numbers, well, dragged a bit, but not because of anything the actors did or didn't do. The audience didn't know that it was OK -- and even welcome -- to cheer, clap and get into the music. A drag performer feeds on audience energy -- it's a two-way conversation. Because the Bus Barn stage is so intimate, it would have been great to have seen the drag performers leave the stage and interact with audience members. At the very least, someone should have signaled the audience that it was OK to be loud and excited when the performers started lip-syncing.
I have never seen a show at the Los Altos Stage Company that was anything short of excellent, and this show is not the exception. It's very clear that the cast, crew and production team put a lot of love into this production, and I want to see it get the audience and the response that it deserves. And I believe that the right audience is out there. If you're reading this, and you're a "RuPaul's Drag Race" fan, you'll get the "tea and shade" -- juicy gossip and attitude -- you're looking for. If you frequented San Francisco's Castro district before it was cool, you'll get the nostalgia and homage to the queens of yore (complete with Streisand lip-sync) you're expecting. And if you've never been to a drag show before, you'll get an introduction to a world full of lovable characters that will hopefully convince you to learn more about the herstory of this fabulous art form -- and get ready to "werk, squirrel friend!"
Freelance writer Kaila Prins can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: "The Legend of Georgia McBride."
Where: Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Ave, Los Altos.
When: Through Sept. 30.
Info: Go to Los Altos Stage Company.