Legends & Outlaws: Theater Review 

Strong productions of Hairspray, Four Places, and The Legend of Georgia McBride now showing.

Last weekend, Memphis exploded with so much theater, there was no way to take it all in. Shows opened at Circuit Playhouse, TheatreWorks, Evergreen Theatre, and Theatre Memphis. A Fringe Festival on two stages at Rhodes College showcased a mix of regional talent and visiting artists working in a variety of performance traditions. It was too much, in the best way possible, and a real opportunity to sample the best of what some of our local companies have to offer. Whether you love big Broadway-style shows, thoughtful family dramas, quirky comedies, or envelope-pushing shows that defy easy description, chances are, Memphis theaters have you covered.

It's hard to do Four Places justice in summary. Joel Drake Johnson's script, now showing at Evergreen Theatre courtesy of Cloud9 theater company and director Irene Crist, plays out in real time, telling the story of siblings intervening in the lives of their alcoholic parents. It's an exercise in tension and dark comedy as public spaces play host to private concerns and vice versa. For people who like good acting, it's also a masterclass in how to communicate loads of information with the simplest gestures.

click to enlarge BILL SIMMERS
  • Bill Simmers

Did Peggy (convincingly played by Glenda Mace) try to kill her invalid husband? Did he beg her to? Dishes were broken. Tough decisions were made while others were avoided. Johnson's play is all about fine-grain details, and how and when they are revealed. Crist and a cast that includes Mace, Annie Freres, Gordon Ginsberg, and Teri Kennedy Feigelson get the timing exactly right, infusing what is essentially a compact family drama with the tense energy of a psychological thriller.

Four Places runs through June 23rd at Evergreen Theatre.

What happens when a peckerwood Elvis impersonator with a heart of gold (and twins on the way!) loses his gig at a peckerwood bar in the Florida panhandle to a couple of drag queens looking to put on a show? Magic, of course.

The Legend of Georgia McBride mixes so many underdog story tropes and stock characters it's enough to make your wig spin, but somehow an original story wobbles out of the dizzying muddle, like a newly minted drag star in her first pair of stacked stilettos. A sweet and silly soap opera plot lightens more subtle, bracing lessons about economic security.

Low-volume drag numbers never fail to entertain, but they also interrupt the pace, making Georgia McBride a bumpier ride than it might be. Generous performances by a perfect ensemble make up for any deficiencies.

The Legend of Georgia McBride runs through June 30th at The Circuit Playhouse.

Memphis has witnessed so many fantastic productions of John Waters' hit musical Hairspray, I wondered what Theatre Memphis might do to improve on what we've seen so far. The short answer: everything. The choreography is fun, the music is a lively romp through 1960s-era lounge and R&B, and the performances are all first-rate. But from its giant sputnik chandeliers to go-go dancers in silhouette and a sweet butterscotch Telecaster nobody really plays, Theatre Memphis nails the spirit and detail of mid-20th-century design like nothing I've ever seen on stage, making Jack Yates (set), Mandy Heath (lights), and Amie Eoff (costumes) the show's secret stars.

Yates' sets are a glorious, color-saturated love letter to the golden age of black-and-white TV. They look like the best of T.A.M.I. Show producer Steve Binder's rock-and-roll extravaganzas with clear nods to Hootenanny, Shindig, Elvis: '68 Comeback Special, and the mod-est of weekly music and youth-oriented programming.

John Waters' Baltimore is famously garish, and when it needs to be, so is this production of Hairspray. It's also a gorgeous Crayola box explosion wrapped in a cotton-candy halo — a sweet treat front to back.

Hairspray runs through June 30th at Theatre Memphis.

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