Sweet Home Alabama drifts through the theater, we see a dressing room that, even in its prime, was not built to impress. A jumpsuit clad, bedazzled Elvis impersonator saunters on stage. Note: this is pre-peanut-butter-and-bacon-sandwich Elvis. As the audience laughs, Casey (played by Nate Santana) is absorbed in the moment and the warmth of the lights all on him.
But life isn’t as simple as ‘follow your dreams’. There are bills to pay, fights to have, and reality waiting when the Elvis costume comes off. We follow Casey as he flounders to find his way through life. He knows what he loves but can’t seem to stay afloat doing it. This play exploring the struggle of a dream unfulfilled is deeply relatable, dynamic, and silly in the best way.
Basic premise: Casey loves Elvis but can’t pay the rent. Enter a merry pair of drag queens. Finally with a chance to support his future child, Casey does drag. Well, Casey stands awkwardly as Edith Piaf plays.
When Casey steps onto the stage for the first time as Georgia McBride, high-heeled clad and wobbling like a newborn Bambi, the entire lighting design shifts (thanks to lighting designer JR Lederle). An icy blue washes over the stage as a single spotlight blasts Georgia. These moments of extreme shift in lighting were inspired while beautifully externalizing Casey’s inner uncertainty.
In Northlight Theatre’s Chicago premiere, club owner, Eddie (Keith Kupferer) showed a playfulness throughout the piece. Imagine the Big Lebowski but in a John Deere hat. Still, the comedic timing of Jeff Kurysz, double cast as Rexy the sassy (and usually drunk) drag queen and Jason, the chronically oversharing neighbor, that left a lasting impression. In 6 inch heels a neon wigs, and sporting a thick accent Jeff shone through in his command of the stage, incessant gum smacking, and stellar instinct for comedy. While the drag mother, Miss Tracy Mills was more debutant in demeanor and lip synch style than RuPaul, a refreshing decision artistically. She is equal parts kind and cheeky.
The dialogue is snappy without borrowing too heavily from common drag idioms. While the end turned a bit sugary and saccharine from this writer’s perspective, Rexy’s tirade describing the importance of drag was chills inducing. “Drag is a protest...it’s a raised fist inside a sequined glove”. The ability to tell a story of a straight man attempting drag while avoiding all out camp or exploiting drag culture to audiences less familiar with the artform is challenging to put it lightly. Still, Matthew Lopez finds balance in the camp and sincerity while showing great sensitivity and respect for the community.
Sure, there is more elaborate drag out there, especially in Chicago (looking at you, Sidetrack). There are more experienced queens and elaborately choreographed lip synching. As entertaining as a good drag show is, this fan of drag shows did find the elaborate dances at the midpoint of the show went a tad long.
Northlight Theatre Brings Us Drag For Beginners
But that’s not the point. The Legend of Georgia McBride is ideal for beginners, those audience members less versed in drag queendom, like training wheels, we could say. It is accessible to both audiences completely foreign to the scene while still speaking to those of us who know exactly what a death drop is.
Underneath all the sequins and false eyelashes is something deeper. Like Jo and Casey, people in relationships change and continue to grow whether that includes their partner or not. There are two options: accept the person as they transform and love them in a new and different way, or reject their newly discovered self. This underlying theme is compelling and relatable, and could be foreshadowed even more throughout the piece. Leslie Ann Sheppard (Jo) captures this moment beautifully in her struggle to understand the man she loves while dealing with the onslaught of stressors and uncertainty that the unfortunate combination of poverty and mid-twenties life brings.
Finally, to highlight the star of the show. Any man who can put on falsies in under thirty seconds in front a theater full of people deserves respect. But Nate Santana offered far more than just that. His performance was genuine, goofy in that endearing way, and brave. A good role asks the actor to become vulnerable in front of an audience. A good actor will take that role, no matter how intimidating that moment of vulnerability is. Nate putting on pantyhose, blush, and twirling to Shania Twain shows just that. The only critique to offer would be more while singing. Casey is filled with insecurity, sure, but we want to be able to enjoy every word, which this writer sometimes had to strain to hear, unfortunatley. With a voice like his, we want to savor his song!.
Heart, sass, and spanx. In a show about drag, all are welcome in The Legend of Georgia McBride. So if you’re looking to escape for a few hours and see some truly bad wigs (in a hilariously good way), this show is for you. Just be prepared to laugh and secretly tap your foot to country music...even if you’re not crazy about country, your foot will be tapping.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Thru October 22
Tuesdays: 7:30 (October 17 only)
Wednesdays: 1:00pm (except October 11) and 7:30pm
Saturdays: 2:30pm and 8:00pm
Sundays: 2:30pm and 7:00pm (October 8 only)
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts
9501 Skokie Blvd