Raise a lipstick-stained glass to Miss Tracy Mills, the one true legend in The Legend of Georgia McBride (★★★). In Matthew Lopez’s crowd-pleasing comedy, now at Round House Theatre, Tracy lands like a drag Mary Poppins in Panama City Beach, Florida, for the express purpose of sprucing up Cleo’s, a dying dive bar owned by her cousin Eddie (Charlie Kevin).
A saucy and experienced high-glamour queen, Tracy is a mother-tucking professional, brought brilliantly to life by Rick Hammerly. She arrives at Cleo’s with her sidekick Rexy (Dezi Bing), and wastes no time putting together the “drag spectacular” stage show Eddie requested to replace the bar’s lame Elvis act.
From the moment she steps on stage, Tracy is a fixer you can readily believe will turn around the bar’s fortunes. Director Tom Story stages and frames her confident comic presence to maximum effect, and Hammerly, choreographed by Matthew Gardiner, deftly amplifies her wide-eyed gestures for several captivating lip-sync performances.
But, as the title points out, it ain’t all about Miss Tracy Mills. In fact, the play only skims the surface of what it nominally is about: struggling Elvis impersonator Casey (Zack Powell) ditching his act as the King to become a queen. Casey is straight, but in order to keep his job at Cleo’s, he starts performing in drag as Georgia McBride, guided steadily by the generous but tough veteran tutor.
Casey evinces no discernible confusion regarding his sexuality, but still he chickens out on informing his wife Jo (Yesenia Iglesias) that he’s donning wigs and heels to help support them and the baby she’s carrying. The secret he keeps and the lies he tells build suspense in what amounts to the play’s sole dramatic throughline, besides the “let’s-put-on-a-show” progression of Tracy and Georgia’s co-starring act.
While Tracy puts on a few numbers that bring the house down, including an uproarious “MacArthur Park,” there’s little indication in the script of why she couldn’t ply her trade prosperously elsewhere. And she more than proves her performance and people skills making a drag queen out of thin air from a young bro who, in his own words, spent high school learning “football and fucking.”
Her protégé is a credible queen, but Georgia lacks fierceness. Powell smoothly delineates Georgia’s evolution, starting from Casey’s loose-hipped Elvis, clomping through first-time-in-drag realness, and finally landing at confident bar queen. Yet the Georgia who emerges doesn’t stand on her own as a character — not in the way that Hammerly’s Tracy appears as a persona distinct from the queen’s gay male self, Bobby.
Rather than shining as a star in her own right, Georgia reads as Casey in drag, which undercuts part of the play’s message, that drag is about persona. Ultimately, the drag persona Georgia becomes a role model for the straight guy’s growth as a human being. Casey, meet Tootsie.
On Casey’s journey, audiences will have to endure along with him an abundance of reproachful speechifying, from Jo about his failings as a partner, from Tracy about living truthfully, and from Rexy about paying due homage to drag history and queer culture. The last of those righteous screeds, delivered by a character who’s falling down drunk much of the time, seems horned in to ensure that audiences grasp some deeper meaning from Casey’s dance on the line between masculine and feminine.
The Legend of Georgia McBride can feign a moment’s concern with identity politics, but really it’s built as a vehicle for a queer-friendly — though not exactly queer — drag show. It’s a well-built vehicle at that, spinning on scenic designer Misha Kachman’s gimbaled set between the dressing room at Cleo’s, the living room of Casey and Jo’s apartment, and the stage where Tracy, Georgia, and Rexy work the crowd.
The mood is easygoing fun, watching cousin Eddie progress from trucker hat-wearing hick to drag impresario, while enjoying Georgia and Tracy lip-sync for their livelihoods, gorgeously abetted by costume designer Frank Labovitz and the quick-change elves on the wig and wardrobe crew. One only wishes for a tiny bit stronger medicine to go down with all the heaping spoonfuls of sugar.
The Legend of Georgia McBride runs through July 1 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Tickets are $50 to $61. Call 240-644-1100, or visit RoundHouseTheatre.org.