"Drag ain't a hobby, baby ... Drag is a protest. Drag is a raised fist in a sequined glove."
Tart-tongued Rexy delivers that declaration to neophyte Casey late in "The Legend of Georgia McBride," Matthew Lopez's comedy about the making of a drag queen in its Chicago-area premiere at Skokie's Northlight Theatre.
"The Legend of Georgia McBride"★ ★ ½
Location: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 22. Also 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17. No shows at 7 p.m. Oct. 8 and 1 p.m. Oct. 11.
Running time: About one hour, 45 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Free parking in the lot and garage adjacent to the theater
Rating: For adults; contains mature subject matter and language
That statement is accompanied by references to ACT UP, an advocacy group formed in 1987 to assist people with AIDS, and Stonewall, a 1967 uprising at a gay bar in Greenwich Village that sparked the LGBTQ rights movement. The scene involves an experienced drag performer schooling a newcomer, who knows nothing about the art form or its legacy. It's a sobering moment in this sassy, sentimental but unsurprising play, which never really goes beyond the superficial.
That's a shame because, as "The Legend of Georgia McBride" suggests, there is more to drag performance than glittering costumes, sky-high heels and the ability to lip sync.
We first meet cash-strapped Casey (the affable, unaffected Nate Santana) at Cleo's, a down-at-heel, Florida Panhandle bar where he earns a few bucks lip syncing Elvis Presley hits. Paying the bills falls to Casey's long-suffering, ever-loving wife Jo (Leslie Ann Sheppard), who supports them with money she makes waitressing. However, her unexpected pregnancy makes their financial situation even more precarious. Casey figures he'll do more shows, but Cleo's curmudgeonly owner Eddie (Keith Kupferer) has other ideas.
In a bid to attract patrons, Eddie trades his King for a pair of "queens": the divine Miss Tracy Mills (a warm, generous Sean Blake) and her more prickly counterpart Rexy (Jeff Kurysz). But there's no room for Elvis in Tracy's show, which relies mostly on impressions of Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland (snazzily attired by Rachel Laritz, whose attractive costumes reflect drag queens on a budget).
Casey takes a job tending bar, until Rexy shows up intoxicated and unable to perform. Tracy convinces Casey to take Rexy's place. Dressed in black, wearing high heels and a frosted wig, Casey plays French chanteuse Edith Piaf, lip syncing to a tune he doesn't know, using a phrase that can't be printed in a family newspaper.
Needless to say, a star is born.
With Tracy's help (and without his wife's knowledge), Casey creates his alter-ego, a country-western diva named Georgia McBride. While Tracy conjures Tina, Barbra and Judy, Georgia channels Dolly Parton and Shania Twain. The show's a hit. The bar is saved. And all is well, until Rexy returns and Jo discovers the role her husband has been playing.
Lopez's feel-good tale comes with some funny jokes and wry quips. But it makes few demands. Several moments -- Blake's quietly moving declaration of Tracy's hard-won self-acceptance and Kurysz's impassioned speech on drag's legacy -- suggest Lopez has more weighty issues on his mind. But they remain unexplored.
That said, director Lauren Shouse's production benefits from her cast -- especially Santana, Kurysz and Blake (who comes across as a kinder, gentler Mamma Rose). The three embrace these drag queens with the enthusiasm and respect they deserve.