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Elvis is dead, but a star is born

Matthew Lopez brings his latest hit play to Los Angeles

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Geffen, Lopez, stage, Georgia McBride
Matthew Lopez interview, gay news, Georgia McBride

The Legend of Georgia McBride is playing from April 12 to May 14 at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater (10886 Le Conte Ave.). Written by Matthew Lopez, Directed by Mike Donahue, Choreography by Paul McGill. Featuring Andrew Burnap, Matt McGrath, Nija Okoro, Larry Powell & Nick Searcy. Photo courtesy Geffen Playhouse

Young Casey’s in a bind — his wife is pregnant, rent is due, and he’s fired from his gig as an Elvis impersonator in a small-town Florida Panhandle bar. So what’s a boy to do? Don a wig and sashay, natch.

And so begins “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” opening Wednesday, April 12 at the Geffen Playhouse. It’s the hilarious latest from writer Matthew Lopez, whose first hit, the very different “The Whipping Man,” has been one of the most widely produced new American plays this decade. We spoke with Lopez last weekend, just as he arrived in Los Angeles for the start of Georgia McBride’s previews this week.

LA BLADE: Your first big hit, “The Whipping Man,” was a serious play dealing with race relations during the Civil War, and “The Legend of Georgia McBride” seems pretty much on the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum in terms of topic and tone. Is it important to you to cover broad ground in your work?

MATTHEW LOPEZ: Writing is obsessive work. I sometimes compare it to digging wells. Once you’ve struck water, you move on to another patch of earth and start digging another well.  If I’ve explored a topic, a genre, or historical period to my satisfaction, I am eager to move on to another, to immerse myself in new world. If I kept repeating the same topic/genre/period over and over, I’d run the risk of writing the same play over and over.

BLADE: What was your inspiration for “The Legend of Georgia McBride?”

LOPEZ: A friend of a friend of my then-boyfriend (now husband) had put together a music playlist for her boyfriend who was experimenting with drag as performance art. He was putting together a persona, and the playlist was filled with female country singers: Dolly, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, etc. It’s a great mix, and it got me thinking: What would it take for a straight man to become a drag queen? Who would he be, and what would that journey look like? I’m fascinated by people who leave their bubble and willingly place themselves in foreign territory.

Then I decided he needed to be someone whose bubble is as far from drag as possible: a straight white redneck Elvis impersonator from the Florida Panhandle, where I was raised. I was eager to watch that guy transform into something new and beautiful.

Personally, I spent much of my teenage years with drag queens. I had a friend who had started doing drag and I would sneak in to the one gay bar in my hometown and watch him perform. I’d hang out in the dressing room with him and all the other queens as they prepared for their shows. That energy backstage was intoxicating (sometimes literally) and I wanted to capture my memories of that time in this play.

BLADE: Are you excited to bring Georgia McBride to Los Angeles?

LOPEZ: Deeply. LA is a town I love and I’ve always hoped for a production at the Geffen. As a writer working both in features and theater, you can sometimes feel your life is bifurcated and that the great expanse of continent between New York and LA is a kind of geographic metaphor. I’m very happy to get to do this here at this point in my career.  It feels like the fusing of two halves of my life.

BLADE: I know you’re bringing along director Mike Donahue, choreographer Paul McGill and actor Matt McGrath for the LA production. Were you involved with the selection of the rest of the cast for the LA production, particularly Andrew Burnap as Casey?

LOPEZ: Yes, I sat in on all the auditions, which I don’t often do for productions after New York. I love this cast and am eager for LA audiences to fall in love with them the way we have throughout this process.

Andrew is a really special actor. He has shown me new things about this character, things I never imagined were possible. He brings real heart and warmth to the role and makes you care deeply about Casey and his journey. He brings such dignity to the role—even when waddling around in butt padding and falsies.

Andrew was also the very last guy we auditioned for this production. We saw some amazing actors but Casey is a really tricky part. We had to say no to some truly talented young men. When Andrew walked in for his first audition, we just saw Casey. It would shortchange all the hard work he’s put into this to call this role easy for him. But he does make it look effortless.

From The Legend of Georgia McBride, Photo courtesy Geffen Playhouse

BLADE: You mentioned in a Playbill interview last year that you’re working on a piece about the American gay experience during the last 30 years. Could you tell me a little more about that?

LOPEZ: It’s my attempt to piece together a kind of continuum and to place myself and my generation on it. It’s about what it means to me to be a gay man. I was a child during the Plague Years. My first understanding of what it meant to be a gay man was informed by what I saw on the news growing up. None of it was encouraging. I came of age sexually in the mid-1990’s, just as the Plague Years subsided. I liken it to being part of the second wave on D-Day, watching the men before me decimated and then being told it was my turn to take the beach. Sex was a frightening experience for me for much of my younger life and I largely dealt with that fear by avoiding sex altogether. I regret that that’s true. I’m happy that it isn’t anymore.

And now I know younger gay men who were not alive back then and who have no experiential understanding of what it was like. As a result, they have an entirely different relationship with their identities and with sex than I did when I was their age. I’m encouraged and heartened by that. And, if I’m being honest, perhaps a little envious.

This play is my way of looking at that 30-year history in the lives of gay men. It’s my way of attempting to understand the calamity that befell the generation that came before mine and also to explain myself (as a representative of my generation) to the younger generation just coming up in the world.

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Theater

“Hamilton” creators donate monetary damages to LGBTQ+ group

A Texas church performed an unauthorized production of the acclaimed Broadway musical with the addition of homophobic content

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Photo Credit: County of Los Angeles

MCALLEN, Tx – Capping a three-week conflict that attracted national media attention, the creators of “Hamilton” said they will donate monetary damages collected from a Texas church that performed an unauthorized production of the acclaimed Broadway musical and altered it with the addition of homophobic content. 

A statement published on Instagram Tuesday on behalf of Door Christian Fellowship McAllen Church (“Door McAllen”) and its pastor Roman Gutierrez apologizes to the creator and producers of “Hamilton” for using the music and dialogue and changing them without permission. 

While the post made no acknowledgement of Door McAllen’s choice to liken homosexuality to drug and alcohol addiction in its unauthorized alteration of its unauthorized production on August 5, “Hamilton” affirmed its support for the LGBTQ+ community with the decision to give the monetary damages to the South Texas Equality Project.

The LGBTQ+ group did not immediately respond to requests for comment on its pending receipt of the damages, whose value has not been disclosed. 

“Hamilton” fans discovered the performance after Door McAllen streamed the show on its YouTube channel, where it was subsequently cut into clips that were widely circulated on Twitter and other social media platforms – often accompanied by the hashtag #Scamalton and objections to musical’s adulteration. 

Many of the clips show the scene in which Victor Lopez, another Door McAllen pastor, delivers a sermon in which he says: “Maybe you struggle with alcohol, with drugs — with homosexuality — maybe you struggle with other things in life, your finances, whatever. God can help you tonight.”

In addition to its homophobia, the online attention exposed what theater blog OneStage called Door McAllen’s “perfect storm” of copyright and intellectual property (IP) law violations: “The church did not have permission to perform the show, make changes to its lyrics, use its logo, use copyrighted music as a backing track, advertise the production, and stream it on YouTube.” 

“Hamilton” Creator Lin Manuel Miranda was made aware of the unauthorized production of his musical amid the growing backlash against it, issuing a statement where he said, “Grateful to all of you who reached out about this illegal, unauthorized production. Now lawyers do their work.”

OneStage noted that Door McAllen’s apology on Instagram “does not admit wrongdoing” with respect to the church’s unauthorized stage productions of “Disney’s Beauty & the Beast,” “Despicable Me,” and “Elf: The Musical,” which contained similar anti-LGBTQ+ alterations.  

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Theater

Playwright queers a famous president in ‘Lavender Men’

If you’re one of those hardcore LA theatre aficionados who truly love unique & intimate live productions it’s time to consider diving back

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Roger Q. Mason Alex Esola and Pete Ploszek in 'Lavender Men' (Photo by Jenny Graham)

LOS ANGELES – While you may have noticed that theatre venues like the Ahmanson and the Pantages have made a triumphant return from the COVID shutdowns, LA’s smaller theatre spaces – those who managed to make it through without closing permanently, that is – are still struggling to rebound. If you’re one of those hardcore LA theatre aficionados who truly love the kind of unique and intimate live productions one can only find in our fabulous city, it’s definitely time to consider diving back in – and fortunately, the historic Skylight Theatre has something on its stage right now that should be considered a must-see for any LGBTQ+ theatre fan.

Produced by Playwrights Arena and the Skylight Theatre Company, “Lavender Men” is a brand-new “historical fantasia” which re-imagines one of America’s most beloved historical icons, President Abraham Lincoln, through a queer lens. It’s not the first time Lincoln’s alleged non-heterosexual leanings have been the subject of speculation – or even of speculative dramatization – but this is not merely a historical drama attempting to make a case for the Great Emancipator’s queerness. Directed by Lovell Holder, it instead bridges over a century and a half of history by focusing on an outside observer – Taffeta, a queer and plus-sized person of color who invades Abe Lincoln’s private world to confront issues of visibility, race, and LGBTQ+ inclusion that still challenge us today.

Taffeta, like “Lavender Men” itself, is the brainchild of playwright Roger Q. Mason, who (appropriately enough) plays the character in this premiere production. She’s a figure that represents Mason’s own experience of American culture, springing from their own thinking “about the ways in which people of color, plus size, expansive, are often left out of American romances.”

Roger Q. Mason as Taffeta in ‘Lavender Men’ (Photo by Jenny Graham)

The Blade recently had a chance to chat with Mason about the play, and our conversation is below.

LA Blade: It’s interesting that you chose to address our current vision of the American narrative, particularly regarding queer and non-White European experience, with a play about the Civil War era. Can you explain why you made that choice?

Roger Q. Mason: For me, the Civil War was the time in which our current notions of race, politics, history, and memory were first codified. We are still living in the aftermath of the divides formed during that period. It’s no coincidence that, shortly after the war (in 1868, to be exact), the word “homosexual” first appeared in scientific literature. It is not a coincidence that the backlash of the Emancipation Proclamation (and Juneteenth) was Jim Crow – whose insidious ideas we are unfortunately having to relive in our country today. Therefore, the play HAS to return to the Civil War to disrupt our notions about our cultural and historical narrative and start healing, through calling out the ills that divide rather than unite us.


LAB: Lincoln’s sexuality has long been a point of contentious debate, which is not surprising, considering he is obviously an iconic President – and an iconic Republican, too, although the party of his day was arguably more aligned with values generally attributed Democrats, today. Is that part of the reason you decided to explore it in your play?

RQM: Well, the play was first born from working in the brilliant queer arts community of Chicago. At that time, there was a play going around called “Lincoln was a Faggot,” which pondered the 16th President’s queerness. I was intrigued by the premise. I thought that Lincoln was an American historical god – almost impenetrable and beyond notions of the flesh. So, the possibility of his queerness humanized him in a way. And if I can humanize him, then I can interrogate the world in which he lived and the values which we have inherited from that world. Emerging from a place of humanity, change and growth are possible; healing is possible.  Exploring Lincoln’s queerness became, for me, the first step in healing my own Black, plus-sized queer heart now – a heart which oftentimes feels invisible to my white cisgender queer male counterparts.


LAB: Is that how Taffeta came into the picture?

RQM: Taffeta evolved into the center of “Lavender Men” because of a challenge from Skylight Theatre Company. When we were preparing for the Skylab readings, Producing Co-Artistic Director Gary Grossman posed the question, “Why does Taffeta need to be in the play?” In that early draft, she didn’t have the dominant presence she has now, but I knew she needed to be at the center of the work. She was its heartbeat. So, in many ways, Taffeta’s evolution and growth was a reply to Gary’s question.  


LAB: How did writing “Lavender Men” contribute to your own “evolution and growth?”

RQM: The development history of “Lavender Men” is the story of my own growth as a person and a writer. Growing up, I wanted to be a “man of letters” – with an emphasis on the masculine respectability and the intellectual prowess of that phrase – but what I am is a gender expansive story conjurer! I’ve learned through the process of this play to embrace those beautiful aspects of who I am. 

And I must give credit to Playwrights’ Arena for allowing me the space in which to experience that process. My affiliation with them has been one of admirer and devotee. Jon Lawrence Rivera has championed the works of two very important Los Angeles-based playwrights, Boni Alvarez and Donald Jolly, and they are guiding lights to me as a writer – so when this opportunity to collaborate with Jon and his crew came along, I was excited.  

LAB: What points in the play are most significant to you? What do you hope the audience will take away?

RQM: One of my favorite moments in the play was added in previews. It’s right before the last scene, where Taffeta finally admits the conflicted mission of her voyeurism: she is retelling Abe’s story to identify how his queer white male love excludes her as a black, plus-sized person; and she wants to tell it because it is the closest she’ll ever get to romance in her loveless life. As a writer, that kind of dramaturgical clarity is GOLD. 

I hope that audiences relish in the specific and universal truths that my castmates Pete Ploszek, Alex Esola and I are mining through the show, including the hurt that bias reaps on “the other,” the power of second chances, and the eternal search for self-love. Working with my creative other half Lovell Holder, director on this project, has deepened these themes through embodiment in production. We have all had a lot of fun making the show! So, ultimately, I hope audiences learn something new about themselves and their history, while having a fabulous time along the way.

“Lavender Men” performs at LA’s Skylight Theatre, 1816 1/2 North Vermont Ave (in Los Feliz), through Sept 4. For tickets and more information visit the Skylight’s website.

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Theater

“Hadestown” now at LA’s Ahmanson Theater

It’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, who in Ancient Greece became renowned for making music so beautiful it moved the stones to weep

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

LOS ANGELES – By the time “Hadestown” won the Tony for Best Musical, it had already been around for more than 13 years. Conceived, created, and composed by singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell in 2006 in what she describes as “a D.I.Y. theater project”, it passed through several iterations (including a concept album and a New York Theatre Workshop production) in a lengthy development process before finally emerging as the Broadway Production that debuted in 2019.

Its story, of course, has been around for much longer. It’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, who in Ancient Greece became renowned for making music so beautiful it moved the stones to weep; when his beloved wife Eurydice was bitten by vipers and died, he descended into the underworld and used his musical gifts to persuade Hades himself to let her return with him to the world of the living – though with a condition attached to make the hero’s triumph less a victory than a Devil’s bargain, as anyone who knows this familiar tale will surely remember.

And it IS a familiar tale, one which spawned an entire religion in the Ancient Mediterranean world and has gone on to inspire countless artists – for reasons which are perhaps obvious, it’s a story with particular significance to artists, of all kinds – to express it through works of their own over all the centuries since. Why, then, does it need to be told again?

“Hadestown,” now arrived at LA’s Ahmanson Theater, endeavors to answer that question – but it also stands, in all its infectious and transfigurative excellence, as answer enough in itself.

Reimagining the story from its classical origins into something more resembling a rustic American folk tale, Mitchell’s musical transplants it into a New Orleans-esque setting somewhere on the Road to Hell, where Hermes may still be messenger of the gods, but is here a master-of-ceremonies, too.

It’s a place where the times are definitely hard, but Hermes’ ward Orpheus claims to be writing a song to set the world right again. Eurydice is a hungry drifter who falls for the youthful bard even though he’s clearly a simple-minded dreamer with nothing to offer her but his love; the Underworld is a factory, where workers labor eternally under the promise of freedom which never comes, and Hades is its powerful owner; his wife Persephone (per agreement) lives half the year with him down below and counts the hours until she’s free to live the other half having fun and spreading sunshine in the world above.

With the principal characters recast in this way, the show is free to weave their tale through a rich and imaginative blues-and-jazz infused musical score and the simple-but-ingenious theatrical trickery of its scenic design – and the result is two-and-a-half hours of high-spirited, irresistible enjoyment that’s guaranteed to deliver a deeply satisfying emotional catharsis but never once feels like just another version of a stodgy old myth.

There is not much a review can convey about the experience of “Hadestown” that comes close to capturing it. The best one can do is say you will certainly laugh, probably cry, and unquestionably be humming the songs for weeks to come. Beyond that, we can only encourage our readers – enthusiastically –to go and see it, and assure them it will be a rollicking, rousing good time. It is, and we do.

That said, there are a lot of things about it to appreciate – the sense of magic that pervades the entire show, for instance, bringing us into a realm where reality and metaphor blend, and the literal and the poetic become one and the same.

In this “world of gods and men”, summer can be both a season of the year and a feeling of being in love, Hell can be a dead-end job or a troubled marriage, and a wealthy industrialist with Fascist leanings can be the Devil himself. Reading those statements alone is enough to recognize the truth of them; living them through “Hadestown” is enough to stamp that truth indelibly into your memory.

A great deal of the magic that makes that happen comes from the show’s score, performed with relish by an onstage show band that is as much of a character as any of the other people on stage. It disarms us with its feel-good sound, a classic blend of elements from gospel to Dixieland to zydeco, and artfully deploys harmonics and melody with scientific precision to transport us into the esoteric mindset where all myths take place.

In other words, the power of “Hadestown” comes from its music – which, perhaps not coincidentally, is about as true to the spirit of Orpheus himself as you can get.

That spirit clearly inhabits the show’s cast, as well. Tony-winner (for “Million Dollar Quartet”) Levi Kreis steps into the unenviable task of filling the shoes of the regal Andre De Shields – Broadway’s Hermes – and makes the role his own, bringing a crooner’s voice and a “good-time Charlie” flair that lend a poignant edge to the hard-won wisdom it is his assignation to dispense.

As Orpheus, youthful Nicholas Barasch endears himself with a comedic red-headed “mooncalf” persona, while contrasting it with a voice that sounds as if it really was a gift from the gods; Morgan Siobhan Green’s Eurydice is a perfect yin to his yang, as grounded in practical reality as he is adrift in the clouds of his imagination and his art, but with a soulful voice of her own.

Keyvn Morrow brings imposing presence, a powerful deep bass voice, and just enough empathy to Hades, while Kimberly Marable’s Persephone, equally compelling as sun-drenched summer goddess and day-drinking neglected wife, is the natural center of attention whenever she appears onstage.

Capping the main ensemble off are Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne as The Fates, who taunt the characters – and the audience – throughout with tight harmonies and choreography that practically stop the show every time they take the spotlight. And as praiseworthy as all the leading players are, their talents are matched by the entire ensemble.

Add an ever-metamorphosizing scenic design by Rachel Hauck and electrifying choreography by David Neumann, and “Hadestown” becomes an unforgettable trip to the Underworld and back that will leave you wanting more for a long time to come. And if all that is not enough to convince you that it’s the biggest must-see musical of the year so far, then just remember what we said about words not being able to capture the experience – and go to see it anyway.

“Hadestown” continues through May 29 at the Ahmanson, but if you can’t make it by then you can catch the same production when it takes the stage at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from August 9 to 21.

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