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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Legend of Georgia McBride — Arden Theatre (And Other Stuff)

Before making this current doomed-to-fail attempt to cover multiple productions in pithy quick takes, I need to say something about the superb acting local audiences have been treated to show after show. This season is entering its third month, and already, it has offered a spate of brilliant turns that show the breadth, depth, and variety of several performers we in the Philadelphia area will be lucky to see throughout the year. In addition, some visiting actors, among them a regular visitor to two, has upped the acting ante to a point at which you want, for the best reasons and not out of contemporary fashion, to buy a slew of statues and distribute among the dozen or so who have shown theatrical art and theatrical performance at is finest.

Take a bow, a deep, deep bow — Kittson O’Neill, Janis Dardaris, Rebecca Jane Cureton, Kirsten Quinn, Betsy Aidem, Jane Ridley, Patrese D. McClain, Jessica Wagner, Sarah Gliko, Aetna Gallagher, Grace Gonglewski, Paul Schoeffler, Matteo Scammell, Dito van Reigersberg, Ethan Lipkin, Mabound Ebriahimzadeh, Scott Greer, Kyle Fennie, Alex Bechtel, Jenson Titus Lavallee, Fran Prisco, William Rahill, Michael Toner, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Daniel Miller, Greg Wood, Sean Close, Tom Carman, Forrest McClendon, Newton Buchanan, Keith Conallen, Damian Wallace, Ben Michael, Michael Goldsmith, Miles G. Jackson, Lindsay Smiling, Lori Tan Chinn, Tessa Kuhn, Leigha Kato, Laurel Casillo, Victoria Rose Bonino, Austene Van, and Joyce El-Khoury.

A deep bow and critic’s salute to breakthrough performances by Brian Ratcliffe, who did not once use his looks, which registered anyway, in a taut intense performance, and to Anthony Mustafa Adair, who in an expansive, major role, fulfilled the potential he showed in a smaller, and even an almost silent, role in other plays.

Apologies to Jennifer Summerfield and others in the cast of “Angel Street,” the schedule for which never gibed with mine. I can’t imagine Jennifer not being part of the included list.

 

Now to that quixotic attempt! Onwards, Sancho!

 

georgia-mcbride-interiorTHE LEGEND OF GEORGIA McBRIDE, Arden Theater, 40 N. 2nd Street (2nd & Church), Philadelphia, through December 4 — One point of Matthew Lopez’s play is to emphasize talent is its own reward. “The Legend of Georgia McBride” is more a vehicle for some versatile performances that a play of great insight and depth, but Emmanuelle Delpech’s production at the Arden elevates this handy regional filler to a work of art. On two levels. One is Delpech and her cast found the fun in the piece. They nail the one-liners, corny and bearded as some can be, and get the milieu Lopez establishes, in terms of seediness, small time, and drag. The walloping good time is actually a dividend because the main event, the element that makes Delpech’s staging a soaring achievement are the go-for-it, unbridled performances of Matteo Scammell and Dito van Reigersberg as two of the guys who are two of the girls. Not to relegate Mikéah Ernest Jennings to third banana status. He can “itchi gitchi ya ya da da” with the best of them when he gets a chance.

All the guys are great, and Jessica M. Johnson is fine in support while Damian Wallace compounds the admirable impression he made in last season’s “Two Trains Running,” but the star, and the one who makes Delpech’s rendition of this fragile show special is Scammell. Matteo Scammell, an actor for whom inhibition is a word that hangs around a dictionary and who can be lovingly bombastic in one second and sentimentally endearing in another.

Oh, van Reigersberg creates magic, Jennings causes fireworks, Wallace has the smooth, realistic moves of a man who knows he is and what he wants, and Jackson fulfills her thankless duties with aplomb, but Scammell shows a character being constructed, learning and gaining as he proceeds through life, in a way that provides depth to a play that I’m sure in often performed without any.

Fun, which counts for a lot with me, and the opportunity for actors to shine are what “The Legend of Georgia McBride” has going for it. On the surface, as a script, it relies on plot twists that are more expedient and decades out of date than clever or genuinely moving– a man not being to tell his wife how he makes his living, Jennings’s true but tiresomely unctuous explication of drag? Puh-lease, Mary! — so it needs a director and cast that accent and escalate its positives while making its clichéd and twaddly parts tolerable.

In Scammell’s hands, Lopez and “Georgia McBride’s” audience has no fears. His smart powerhouse of a performance, and his display of raw talent on multiple levels is a show in itself. The rest, even van Reigersberg’s majestic presence and the sharp ripostes Lopez manages, are so much window dressing.

That is high praise when you consider van Reigersberg is giving an award-quality performance and Delpech is making Lopez look like a literary — well storytelling — star.

No more downside. Scammell and company are too good and providing too much delight to dwell on anything negative. The duty of putting the play in perspective is done. Now back to the production. And Scammell.

Scammell plays a man with lofty ambition but the innocence and lack of worldliness to think that scaling the heights of show business in Panama City, Florida, in the off-season, is the caramel drizzle on the frappuccino.

Scannell’s Casey thinks playing as an Elvis impersonator to seven half-looped patrons of Wallace’s Panama City dive bar is a decent gig and a heck of a starting place to launch a career that might even see him branching out to playing Mississippi one day.

Casey got the idea he could make a living playing Elvis after he assayed the role of the Pharaoh in a high school production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Anyway, he’s a good, if not perfect or totally accurate Elvis. Better than Panama City deserves.

What Scammell has Casey lack in subtlety and full Elvis persona, he makes up for in bravura and gutsy dance moves that go beyond even the King’s legendary gyrations.

You bask in Casey’s energy and are invigorated by it. Scammell makes you love and root for this guy. He is not a small-timer or a deluded loser. He’s a guy with lots of heart and confidence who is too naïve to know that what he’s doing is, on some levels, tantamount to a joke.

Meanwhile, he invests in costumes and seriously works on his stunning hip action and foot/bootwork. Casey strives for excellence, but he has something better. Showmanship. Casey is good, but he doesn’t have to be great because the good will, entertainment instincts, and consequent excitement make him someone to see.

Sad to say, Casey may have time to cultivate his audience for Elvis. Wallace’s club owner, Eddie, has to generate more cash from his venue, and he had a new idea how to do it.

The idea comes in the form of a needy relative who will work cheap just to have a place to play. The relative is male but nom du théâtre is Miss Tracy Mills. Just as Casey lip synchs to Elvis, Tracy moves her well-reddened lips to the words of various pop divas. Drag begins to outdraw Elvis, and Tracy with his partner, Rexy (for Ann Orexia Nervosa and played by Jennings), take center stage while relegating Casey to bartending and janitorial services.

Until the drug-addicted, unreliable Rexy is unable to go on one night.

Who, or who, asks Judy Garland and Ruby Keeler, is able to take a diva’s part in the show?

If he wants any job at all, the answer — I know how surprised you are — is Casey.

Now Scammell really gets to shine, building Gypsy Rose-like as his drag persona, Georgia McBride, while giving a fine job of showing the real person Casey is in a period of transition.

Scammell did not have to give Casey such dimension to be a success. His ability to slowly master the intricacies of drag, and the French lyrics of Edith Piaf, while showing once again how his show biz savvy will take his anywhere would be enough. It is to Scammell’s credit that you get to see Casey underneath Georgia and get a more layered picture of an average guy with vaunted ideas finding himself in a niche that would never have occurred to him. It is Scammell’s ability to stay Casey and grow Casey as a man that makes it all the more powerful, rewarding, and just plain fun when he grows Casey as a performer. Hold your hats and hallelujah!

Scammell’s Casey gets into being Georgia with all of the gusto and innate creativity that he brought to Elvis.

He’s better at Piaf and other bravura singers because he can bring more variety at heart to them. The glimmer he showed as the Pharaoh, and later as the lead in “Sweeney Todd,” cleverly quoted by Lopez, has manifested into genius right before our eyes. Casey, like Scammell, is a born entertainer. His moves and expressions become more expansive and assured. He knows how to work the audience without pandering. He is enjoying himself. And the money his success in drag, which includes success in dressing, wigging, and making up, affords him.

Watching Scammell work his act and work the room is a five-star treat, a week in London following a month in Amalfi, He reminded me of the great Philly and New York drag acts — Here’s to you, Mabel! — I misspent my happy, preparatory youth enjoying.

And don’t forget, With Scammell is Dito van Reigersberg, a fine actor in his own right, and no less than Philadelphia’s current premiere drag queen, Martha Graham Cracker. Although he gives a smart performance, you’d think it would barely require acting for van Reigersberg to play someone who tutors the next great diva and wows the crowd himself with Martha’s patented moves and some to-die-for gowns and wigs.

Van Reigersberg has one thing Scammell doesn’t have. And I don’t mean experience. Scammell is a great looking guy, but only so-so as a woman. Van Reigersberg is a hubba-hubba looker in either gender.

You see the practice and precision is his moves and dances even as you admire how well he plays Tracy and her off-stage male alter ego. Van Reigersberg matches Scammell moxie for moxie, and the beneficiary of their exhilarating rivalry is the Arden audience.

I daresay if the Arden opted to move this show and mount it as a long-run, it would find the following Deen Kogan established in the “Nunsense” days at Society Hill Playhouse. Philip Roger Roy take not, there’s a possible winner here if you can get actors of Scammell and van Reigersberg’s stature.

As Jimmy Durante might say, everybody gets into the act. An exuberant and festive finale, so much fun, features the entire cast, including Johnson, finally able to shed her sourpuss role, and Wallace, who can teach a few moves to Scammell and van Reigersberg when he proves to be Michael Jackson and Vernel Bagneris all in one.

You quickly forget or excuse the hokeyness of Lopez’s basic plot. It is, after all, a jerry-rigged framework to keep Casey’s story going and provide a hint of conflict, no matter how small or likely to cause eye rolling.

Jorge Cousineau’s set is functionally versatile while being on the mark whether showing a makeshift apartment or a honky tonk club. Melanie Cotton gets loud huzzahs for her choreography, which has the virtue of looking as if Scammell, van Reigersberg, or Jennings is creating it on the spot. Planned and spontaneous, that’s the ticket to excitement. A song Lopez and Joe Tippett write for Casey provides the one really sweet quiet moment in “Georgia McBride,” one that lets Scammell sing in his own voice and show his guitar virtuosity. Überkudos to Olivera Gajic for costumes that exude wit and style. Gajic had fun with everyone’s clothes, especially the Elvis jump suit that is converted in a multi-paneled “look at me,” or, better yet, “I dare you to look away from me” dress, but she is so dead-on with couture for van Reigersberg/Tracy, I would have thought the frocks came directly from the Graham Cracker wardrobe. Bravo to Gajic for truly marrying fantasy to reality.

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” runs through Sunday, December 4, at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street (2nd and Church), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Tuesday and some Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $15 to $52 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or by visiting www.ardentheatre.org. Grade: B++

 

 

See! Utter failure. I go to write a capsule, and it all spills out. I’ll keep trying. I won’t succeed, but I’ll keep trying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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