The King turns Queen in Phoenix’s ‘Georgia McBride’

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre opens its 2019-20 season with the fabulous Off-Broadway comedy, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” by Matthew Lopez.

Set in the Florida Panhandle, just as Casey (Sam C. Jones), a budding Elvis impersonator with a bit of high school musical experience, is finally getting his act to work, Cleo’s Bar on Panama City Beach decides to change its entertainment. Desperate for a bigger (or any) audience, bar manager Eddie (Ty Stover) takes a chance on his cousin, drag queen Miss Tracy Mills (John Vessels).

Casey is in a bind, as his wife Jo (Bridgette Ludlow) is pregnant, so he stays on as bartender. Then, when Miss Tracy’s fellow entertainer, Anna-Rexia Nervosa (Jonathan Studdard), can’t go on, Casey is pressed into service in dress, wig and makeup, and Georgia McBride is born!

Once our hopelessly hetero hero accepts his new persona, “her” popularity rises on the beach-bar scene, but Casey can’t bring himself to tell Jo what he’s been doing. It’s easy to see that a reckoning is coming for Florida’s newest Queen.

This play is loaded with both humor – in side-splitting comic moments – and heart. In Jones and Ludlow’s performance, you can tell Casey and Jo truly love each other, though he tests her patience with his immaturity, and she his with her bouts of pessimism.

Vessels is amazing, whether playing the confident woman backstage or the hilarious performer in the spotlight. Studdard is excellent in double-duty as Rexy, who informs Casey that the drag life is more than just a lip-synching gig; and as Casey and Jo’s landlord and friend, Jason – his double-take when he find’s out about Casey doing drag is priceless. Stover as Eddie is in his element, as he plays a thin-tempered but lovable Falstaff with bills to pay.

The drag scenes are played to the Phoenix audience as the bar’s audience, so cast members informed us after opening night that people sitting up front could tip them like in a regular drag show. Those scenes include clever musical mash-ups, and wonderful costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck. Suzanne Fleenor directs.

The “Legend” continues through Oct. 6 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

IPAI & StageQuest put a new shine on ‘Pippin’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Performing Arts Initiative, a program of Claude McNeal Productions, presents, with StageQuest Theatricals, the Roger Hirson and Stephen Schwartz musical “Pippin.”

StageQuest’s Ty Stover directs this version of a surreal take on a Medieval character — Prince Pippin, son of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne — which differs a bit from other productions, yet keeps the spirit of the Tony-winning show. The stage and costume aesthetic is a sort of urban homeless/punk with dirty faces and mismatched clothes. At least one on-stage clue, and the initial look of our Leading Player (Dave Pelsue), establish a dark cult-like atmosphere with this eclectic company of mostly-young men and women. 

Our leader wishes to tell us a story, the tale of Prince Pippin — not a restless hunchback, as history relates, but a restless healthy educated young man, played by an actor plucked from the audience (Cameron Brown).

Pippin wishes to find his purpose in life, which amuses — and at times irks — his father King Charles (Josiah McCruiston). Meanwhile, his stepmother Fastrada (Laura Lockwood) and dimwit half-brother Luis (Ben Fraley) plot against him. The quest brings on a lot of adventure, but no happiness. Not even a visit to exiled grandmother Berthe (Denise Fort), who basically tells him to just lighten up, brings satisfaction. 

The Leading Player is getting impatient — how will he get the subject of his story to go out appropriately in a blaze of glory? Perhaps an encounter with a lovely widow (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell) and her son (Kate Boice) will do the trick.

Our other players in various roles are Maddie Altom, Isaac Becker, Nik Folley, Seth Jacobsen, Rosemary Meagher, Piper Williams, and Jill Wooster. 

If you’ve seen this show, you know these plot points, but the fun is seeing how they are executed. This troupe does it with great wacky humor and even a sing-along. McCruiston’s big personality makes him a perfect fit for the crown. Brown plays his searching soul a little naive, but without being annoying. Fraley comes across too goofy to be threatening; Lockwood can threaten with a glance. Fort easily keeps up with her younger castmates. Boswell wins us with natural charm. Our tween Boice, already a rising star, shines through the grime on her face. Meanwhile, even in the lightest moments, Pelsue maintains an undercurrent of menace throughout that will lead to a shocking end.

The set includes a small screen at the top of the stage with visual gags and silent commentary (especially during the war scenes). The show features popular show tunes including “Magic to Do,” “No Time at All” and the recurring theme, “Corner of the Sky.” As a whole, the production is both familiar and new — enough of the former to make us comfortable, and enough of the latter to give you plenty to think about after the last curtain call. 

Performances are Friday through Sunday, July 19-21, at Herron High School, 110 E. 16th St. (enter on the west side). Get tickets at ipai.tix.com.