'The Legend of Georgia McBride' charms New York critics

MCC Theatre's 'The Legend of Georgia McBride.' Photo by Joan Marcus.
Dave Thomas Brown as Casey in MCC Theatre’s ‘The Legend of Georgia McBride.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

New York theatre critics generally lauded the Denver Center-born comedy The Legend of Georgia McBride after its high-energy off-Broadway opening last night. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times led the way, praising Matthew Lopez’s heartfelt comedy as “a first-rate production.”

Isherwood, one of the most respected (and feared) theatre critics in America, called the MCC Theatre’s staging “a stitch-in-your-side comedy” that is “full of sass and good spirits — along with a spritz or two of sentimentality.”

With “quips flying like shuttlecocks,” he continued, “there’s as much richly catty humor here as in a full season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, along with some clever pop-culture gags. The Sound of Music joke alone is worth the price of admission.”

The Legend of Georgia McBride joins The Most Deserving and The Whale as recent DCPA Theatre Company world premieres that have found continued life on New York stages. Just Like Us and The House of the Spirits are other recent premieres that have been picked up outside of New York. Counting the upcoming Fade and The Nest, Kent Thompson has now slated 27 world premieres in his 11 years as Producing Artistic Director. He not only believes his legacy in Denver will one day be judged by those numbers — he has said he wants it to be.

The Legend of Georgia McBride which was developed through Thompson’s annual Colorado New Play Summit, is Lopez’s genial story of a broke Elvis impersonator who, in desperation, resorts to becoming a drag queen to support his growing family – and finds that he loves it. It is a fast-moving comedy about finding your true voice … complete with several high-energy drag numbers.

The MCC Theatre production is directed by Mike Donahue, who also helmed the world premiere staging at the DCPA in February 2014. Isherwood called Donahue’s direction snappy and “totally flawless.”

Isherwood was particularly charmed by Matt McGrath’s performance as an aging drag queen named Miss Tracy. McGrath is the only common cast member from the Denver staging. Isherwood wrote:

Most impressively, while drag queens have practically become stock characters in pop culture, Mr. McGrath imbues his version with a life-hardened authenticity underneath the garish wig and the cracking makeup; there isn’t a trace of caricature in his portrayal of the sweetly maternal Tracy. Mr. Lopez has naturally given Tracy the play’s choicest bons mots, but Mr. McGrath also achieves the signal feat of making Tracy’s flip wit feel spontaneous and fresh.

Assuming the role of Casey, the Elvis impersonator-turned-drag queen, Isherwood called  Dave Thomas Brown’s move from a laid-back country boy to glittering, acid-tongued drag performer “a delight.”

Several of the New York critics expressed surprise that Lopez is the same playwright who previously broke through with his weighty Civil War slavery drama, The Whipping Man. Some were thrown to find Georgia McBride to be a much more intentionally uncomplicated comedy. Isherwood cited the potential to delve more deeply into what making a living as a drag queen might do to a country-bred heterosexual man’s psyche. Likewise, Alexis Soloski of The Guardian said questions of gender and sexuality remain unexplored. But that issue was more than countered, she felt, by “the cheerful abandon with which director Mike Donahue and his cast plan and execute the musical numbers.” She wrote:

McGrath, long reliable as a character actor, is a particular wonder, especially in a terrifying medley that jumbles pretty much every Broadway ballad and some pop ones, too. His Tracy is an utter caricature, though always somehow sympathetic and credible. And McGrath looks surprisingly good in capris.

By contrast, Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News found the play to be “deceptively deep.” He found the relationship between Casey and his wife, Jo, to be filled with tenderness. “Lopez’s latest play may not make him a legend, but it confirms his status as a writer worth hearing from,” he wrote.

Here are more excerpts from the reviews:

Matt McGrath in MCC Theatre's 'The Legend of Georgia McBride.' Photo by Joan Marcus. Matt Windman of amNewYork called the play a heartfelt, feel-good comedy: “Once it gets going, some very funny exchanges and polished drag sequences follow, plus a spirited defense of drag as a form of cultural protest and a way of life. McGrath is terrific as Miss Tracy Mills, a witty and aging drag queen.”

Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter called the play sleek and fast-paced: “Featuring enough amusingly bitchy one-liners and energetic musical numbers to be a genuine crowd-pleaser, the play is frothy to the extreme, a show for people who find Mamma Mia heavy lifting. But its relentless silliness is sweet and amiable enough to make it go down easy.”

(Pictured right: Matt McGrath in MCC Theatre’s ‘The Legend of Georgia McBride.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Adam Feldman of Time Out New York: “A Queer Eye for the Straight Guy version of Tootsie, Matthew Lopez’s feel-good comedy delivers many of the diversions that its premise suggests. Directed by Mike Donahue, on a terrific set by Donyale Werle, the production features silly-glam costumes and snappy one-liners for the queens, an amusing learning-curve montage for our hero and several zippy musical numbers, including a delightful show-tune medley. And McGrath is soup-to-nuts wonderful as Tracy: seasoned, sympathetic and shrewdly funny. But the other characters rarely get beyond the formulaic beats of the plot.

The Legend of Georgia McBride: Production information
By Matthew Lopez; directed by Mike Donahue; choreography by Paul McGill; sets by Donyale Werle; costumes by Anita Yavich; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Jill B C Du Boff; makeup and wig design by Jason Hayes; production manager, B. D. White; production stage manager, Lori Lundquist Featuring Dave Thomas Brown (Casey), Wayne Duvall (Eddie), Matt McGrath (Tracy), Keith Nobbs (Rexy/Jason) and Afton Williamson (Jo). Presented by MCC Theater, Robert LuPone, Bernard Telsey and William Cantler, artistic directors; Blake West, executive director. At the Lucille Lortel Theater, 866-811-4111, mcctheater.org. Through Sept. 27. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission.

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