Lip synch or swim! Drag fun in Marin’s Georgia

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The cast of Mathew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride at Marin Theatre Company includes (from left) Jason Kapoor as Rexy, Adam Magill as Casey and Kraig Swartz as Miss Tracy Mills. Below: Backstage drama comes to Miss Tracy Mills (Swartz, left), Rexy (Kapoor, center) and Eddie (John R. Lewis). Photos by Kevin Berne

When you’re already an Elvis impersonator, could drag really be that far behind? Not according to the glittery, big-hearted drag comedy The Legend of Georgia McBride now closing the 50th anniversary season at Marin Theatre Company. Playwright Matthew Lopez dips into territory previously covered by The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Kinky Boots, Tootsie, Sordid Lives and Some Like It Hot, and while there are certain formulaic aspects of the story of a straight man embracing his inner drag diva, it’s all done with such sincerity and good humor it’s impossible to resist.

One question Lopez doesn’t really answer in his script is why Casey (Adam Magill) is so invested in being an Elvis impersonator at a rundown club in Panama City, Fla. He had done some musicals in high school, but now that he’s a married adult, his choice of profession is swiveling his hips and lip-synching to Elvis songs for about seven indifferent people in the audience. His wife, Jo (Tatiana Wechsler) is living the cranky life as a waitress and serves as the family’s bread winner. During a fight involving a bounced rent check, the loss of the Elvis gig and impending eviction, Jo announces she’s pregnant.

Even though he can’t don his rhinestone jumpsuit (complete with cape!), Casey returns to the bar to serve as bartender, but wouldn’t you just know? The drag duo the bar’s owner, Eddie (John R. Lewis), hired to drum up some audience interest has hit a snag: one of the performers, Miss Rexy (Jason Kapoor) has passed out cold. So in true show-biz fashion, the older, wiser drag queen, Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) whips Casey into a wig, a dress, heels and makeup and forces him onto the stage. Somehow, the number works in spite of Casey’s awkwardness and the fact that the Piaf song he was saddled with was in French (just mouth the words “watermelon motherfucker” is the advice he’s given, and it sort of works). A drag star is born.

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Casey doesn’t exactly tell Jo why they can suddenly pay the rent, so of course that will catch up with him. But apart from the requisite drama, the fun in director Kent Gash’s production comes from some delightful drag performances featuring a parade of beguiling outfits designed by Kate Harmon. Swartz has real panache – his Garland and Streisand bits are priceless – and the ever-appealing Magill oozes sincerity and sensitivity and makes his drag persona, Georgia McBride, really shine when his performances are more organic and less choreographed. Kapoor, who does double duty as Casey’s friend/landlord, also has an impressive Lady Gaga moment of his own. I’m not sure we needed another drag performance of the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men,” but the choreography by Dell Howlett is awfully fun.

As you might expect from such a likable play, this is an extremely likable cast, and it’s especially nice to feel such warmth between Casey and the women in his life: his wife, to whom he gives foot rubs and his eternal devotion, and Miss Tracy, the mentor who will actually make him a better man (i.e. an adult who can see more clearly who he is and what he wants). As Miss Tracy puts it, Casey is a straight man in drag and she’s a drag queen in hell. Lopez gets off some nice zingers, and there’s a sustained sense of laughter and good cheer through much of the show’s intermissionless 115 minutes. We get an unnecessary lecture about what drag really means, and the play doesn’t know quite how (or when) to end, but as long as Swartz’s in-charge Miss Tracy is actually in charge, it’s all good.

Drag is complicated, especially in terms of its relationship to gender, sexuality and good old-fashioned camp. Georgia McBride isn’t the play that’s going to delve into and unpack or illuminate all of that. But it is a rousing good time with a zippy soundtrack, Florida panhandle glitz and endearing, open-hearted characters.

Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride continues an extended run through July 9 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets start at $22. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Take it on faith: see Marin’s Whipping Man

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Tobie Windham (left) is John, L. Peter Callender (center) is Simon and Nicholas Pelczar is Caleb in the Bay Area premiere of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. Below: Windham’s John and Pelczar’s Caleb fall into the chaos of life after the Civil War. Photos by Kevin Berne

If Matthew Lopez were a miner, he could brag that he uncovered a rich mineral vein of enormous wealth, both cultural and commercial. But Lopez isn’t a miner. He’s a playwright, and though there are similarities to be sure, what Lopez brings to the surface in his fascinating play The Whipping Man is a mostly untold chapter of American history with deep spiritual resonance.

Lopez, whom Bay Area audiences met earlier this year when his play Somewhere ran at TheatreWorks, is a young playwright of note. The Whipping Man is the play that first brought him notice, and it receives its Bay Area premiere courtesy of Marin Theatre Company and co-producer Virginia Stage Company and in association with San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.

The great thing about this co-production is that we are on the latter half of it, which means the cast of Bay Area actors – L. Peter Callender, Nicholas Pelczar and Tobie Windham, all of whom start out being at the top of their game – have had the benefit of a full run in Virginia and extra rehearsal in Marin with director Jasson Minadakis. The result is a riveting two hours of finely tuned performances so in sync with one another the play is elevated to an astonishing level of immediacy and impact.

Act 1 is mostly set-up, as we meet wounded Confederate soldier Caleb (Pelczar) returning to his family’s decimated Richmond, Va., plantation (the ruins of set is by Kat Conley) in mid-April, 1865. The Civil War is over, and though Caleb is thrilled and relieved to meet Simon (Callender), one of his family’s slaves, there’s a new tension between them, especially when Caleb orders Simon to do something instead of asks – as if he were still the owner and Simon still the property.

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With the arrival of John (Windham), another former slave from the estate, the trio is complete, although John brings with him a whole lot of uncertainty. He’s been looting the neighboring plantations, and there’s something he’s not telling. There are, in fact, secrets all around, but there are two pieces of business that need to be addressed more immediately.

The first is Caleb’s leg would – he was shot in the Battle of Petersburg, the final humiliation of four years at war. Simon recognizes gangrene and knows decisive action must be taken to save Caleb’s life. The other issue is Passover. Caleb’s family is Jewish, and the slaves raised on the plantation have also been raised Jewish, so Passover is a major holiday. Simon and John are up for improvising a Seder, though Caleb’s war experience has led him to a crisis of faith.

There’s more juicy drama packed into Act 1 involving emancipation, romance and betrayal, but the real heart of The Whipping Man emerges in Act 2 when the three men begin the ritual of the Passover Seder, and the words about being freed from the bonds of slavery take on even deeper meaning, and the ritual quickly becomes raw emotion.

These extraordinary scenes also beg certain questions, like how is it that Jews in the South had slaves? It’s a fact that they did, but how did a people whose freedom from slavery in Egypt has become a touchstone in their religion, reconcile that with actually owning slaves? And feeling the power of the Passover ritual acted out in those confusing, exciting, dangerous post-war days also exposes the absence of a dignified commemoration or ritual in this country’s relationship with the end of slavery. How do we go from generation to generation ensuring that the enslavement of one people by another never happens again?

Well, theater is ritual, so in a way, The Whipping Man serves a purpose greater than an evening’s entertainment. Lopez is a compassionate writer, and his characters – even the touchy John – are full of complex emotions and, in spite of obvious obstacles, a strong sense of family and kinship to one another.

All three actors are superb, but Callender just ignites the play in Act 2. His Simon conducts the Seder as if it’s the first time such a service has ever been held, with every word and gesture infused with meaning and spiritual connection. It’s a beautiful performance.

On one level, The Whipping Man is a thoroughly enjoyable Civil War melodrama, on another, it’s a much more significant glimpse into the nature of faith and how it connects us and into the upheaval of great historical moments and what we do – or fail to do – in their wake.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright Matthew Lopez for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man continues an extended run through April 28 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Lopez family aims high in TheatreWorks’ Somewhere

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The cast of TheatreWorks’ Somewhere includes, from left, Eddie Gutierrez as Francisco, Priscilla Lopez as Inez, Michael Rosen as Alejandro, Leo Ash Evens as Jamie and Michelle Cabinian as Rebecca. Photo by Tracy Martin

In my interview with Priscilla Lopez (see below for the link), the original Diana Morales in the landmark production of A Chorus Line, she calls Somewhere, the play written by her nephew Matthew Lopez now at TheatreWorks, a “dance-ical,” meaning not a play exactly, not a musical exactly but a drama infused with dance. That’s a great way to describe the show, which features a number of dance sequences.

I reviewed Somewhere for the Palo Alto Weekly. Here’s an excerpt:

If you could distill American drama down to two themes, they might be family and dreams, especially if dreams can also encompass delusions. Lopez’s play, which had its premiere last fall at San Diego’s Old Globe and has been seriously revised for its bow in Mountain View, is all about a family of dreamers.

“We force the world to look like our dreams,” the starry-eyed mother tells her disillusioned son. “We do not force our dreams to look like the world.”

That’s the truth. How else to account for just how happy the Candelarias are when the reality of their situation could make for a depressing evening of theater.

Read the complete review here.

[bonus interview]
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Award-winner Priscilla Lopez for a story in the San Francisco Chornicle. Read the story here.

Matthew Lopez’s Somewhere continues through FEb 10 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit