Cygnet’s ‘McBride’: a Night with the Understudies

Against his better judgment, Casey/Georgia (Spencer Bang, left) takes a cue from drag vet Tracy Mills (David McBean). Photos by Daren Scott.

Casey and Jo are pregnant and poor (as in no-rent-money poor), but poverty is no match for Casey’s elation at the news most every young husband wants to hear.

“We’re gonna be better parents than Mary and Joseph,” he lilts as he grabs Jo up — but just as candidly, his wife quietly reminds him that Joe and Mary’s Kid eventually died nonetheless.

It’s a cute interlude in Cygnet Theatre Company’s The Legend of Georgia McBride, a situation dramedy with a writ-large fable on self-inventory and personal growth. The first shout-out goes to the costumes, which are not so much sartorials as characters, a vital stroke in a show largely driven by its drag-specific escapism and glitz. And while Matthew Lopez’s script is somewhat less inspired in spots, director Sean Murray’s insights are anything but.

This is a good and poignant show, with each element seamlessly attuned to the next. The bawdy production values are clearly inspired by Casey’s unlikely saga, which beseeches unadorned courage of conviction and explores it in no uncertain terms.

[Casey is] not immune to an object lesson on the workaday value of true happiness . . .

High-strung Casey’s a closet theater geek, and his place of employment reflects it. He’s an Elvis impersonator at Cleo’s, a Panama Beach, Fla. dive with one foot in the fiscal grave as owner Eddie seeks to spice up the receipts through his cousin Tracy Mills’ drag act. Casey’s demoted to bartender as Tracy struts his stuff with lushy partner Anorexia Nervosa (“It’s Italian,” she explains) — one thing leads to another, and suddenly, Casey morphs into Georgia McBride, the town’s latest ingenue drag star.

Predictable cattiness peppers the storyline, which features Jo’s shock and disappointment at Casey’s clandestine caper and Anorexia’s disdain for Casey’s newly discovered talent. The thrust of the story, though, is decidedly deeper than all that. Casey may be a lot of things, but he’s not immune to an object lesson on the workaday value of true happiness — not only is he good at his craft, he’s a master at having discovered its value to others and, by extension, to himself.

Everybody kisses and makes up in the end, Casey’s epiphany having fueled a rousing and badly needed renewal of spirit.

There’s more to Lopez’s teasy set-up than an introduction. Arguably, drag fans gay and straight sit up and take notice at the world’s Elvis impersonators (maybe the way gay girls often admire Judy Garland, who’s hilariously represented here in a Dorothy Gale send-up).

As Jo (Alexandra Slade, left) tries to make sense of it all, Casey (Spencer Bang) fails at holding his own.

Suddenly, however, Lopez squanders some of the effect amid his penchant for reportage versus storytelling (often enough, he gives way to gimmicky leg-shaving references and reactionary lines like “If I had a nickel for every straight man who said that to me . . .”).

Yaawwwwwnn.

Sooner than later, the story gets hold of itself amid savvy timing and excellent coaching. Casey’s introspection, a foreign concept to him at the story’s outset, grinds him to a halt, just as Tracy and Anorexia are forced to concede his instinctive wit.

Peaks hit valleys and vice versa amid Murray’s impeccable sense of collective instruction. Clearly, he knows that the drag world is not so much a vehicle for exploration here — it’s rather an agent for self-discovery, one that happens to bathe itself in the real-life theatrics that illustrate the point.

[Gittings’ costumes are] at once utilitarian in their design and positively brilliant in their collective insight.

Spencer Bang’s baffled Casey looks absolutely nothing like Elvis or any of the women he portrays, and that only adds to the believability of his excellent effort. As club owner Eddie and Casey’s landlord Jason, Lance Carter and Chesley Polk dance to separate but equal tunes as matters financial affect Casey’s commerce; Lopez draws the parallel subtly and without haste.

Polk does workmanlike double duty as the diva Anorexia — the character gladly takes second billing to the extraordinary David McBean, whose Tracy is as nuanced as you care. Alexandra Slade’s Jo is serviceable, but the part is underdrawn (Jo is a mitigating influence in all this craziness, and the play needs more of her).

Sean Fanning’s dual-purpose set nicely accommodates Luke H. Jacobs’ choreography and the rest of the tech (Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova,” which I’m listening to right now, has never looked and sounded so good).

Anorexia Nervosa (Chesley Polk) may be Italian, but the horn on her costume speaks volumes for men all over the world.

Even so, the day’s honors go to Jennifer Brawn Gittings and her costumes, at once utilitarian in their design and positively brilliant in their collective insight.

Some might conclude that Lopez and Murray are making much ado about nothing — the drag world, those people may say, enjoys a more marginal place in the entertainment climate, as easy to watch as it is hard to fathom.

But if drag queens represent a call to the imagination, then the human beings underneath the sequins and gowns are their understudies. Indeed, Georgia McBride declares, beauty runs unutterably deeper than skin.

This review is based on the matinee performance of Oct. 15. The Legend of Georgia McBride runs through Nov. 12 at Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in, oddly enough, Old Town. $55-$59. cygnettheatre.com, 619-337-1525.

Photo of Cygnet Theatre
Cygnet Theatre
Work Old Town Theatre 4040 Twiggs St. San Diego CA 92110 Work Phone: (619) 337-1525 Website: Cygnet Theatre website
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Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin, principal at editorial consultancy Words Are Not Enough and La Jolla Village News editor emeritus, has been a theater critic and editor/writer for 25 of his 47 years... More...

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