The 1981 film Mommie Dearest is held in such high esteem by the gay community that camp maven John Waters – who was not involved with the movie in any way – happily provided scene-by-scene commentary for the 2006 DVD release.
In a classic example of art imitating (someone else’s version of) life, Mommie Dearest was based on the autobiography of Christina Crawford, the adopted daughter of 1940s screen legend Joan Crawford (played with scenery-chewing gusto by Faye Dunaway). In Christina’s account, bi-polar Mommie was cruel and spiteful, and cared for no one and nothing but her fading celebrity. She had adopted Christina and her brother as publicity stunts.
Whether any of it was true or not, it made for salacious reading, and subsequently a howlingly over-the-top movie.
Perfect, in other words, for a drag parody.
“My gay friends watch Mommie Dearest, and a lot of my straight friends who kind of understand camp will watch that movie and laugh from beginning to end,” says St. Petersburg actor Matthew McGee.
“And then I’ve had friends who’ll watch it and they’re like ‘This is horrible. This is a movie about child abuse.”
For its annual Prelude to Pride show, McGee and the Suncoast AIDS Theatre Project are turning Joan, Christina and their hapless immediates upside down and sideways. Mommie Queerest – a staged reading in full, outlandish costume – premieres tonight (June 17) at American Stage, and will be repeated just once more, on June 24. Tickets and info here.
No, those aren’t actually women in the “traditional” sense – McGee plays Dunaway-as-Crawford, with Scott Daniel, McGee’s stage partner in The Scott and Patti Show cabaret act, as Christina. The cast also includes Larry Alexander, Roxanne Fay, Susan Haldeman, Steve Garland, Jonelle Meyer and others. Proceeds are earmarked for Metro Inclusive Health.
For McGee, who also wrote the script, it’s a bittersweet occasion. This will be the first Suncoast AIDS Theatre Project Pride Week show without the involvement or counsel of its founder, Equity stage manager and theater warhorse Garry Allan Bruel, who died last July.
“I always say that Garry was a like a John Waters to my Divine,” says McGee, who works as the Community Outreach and Marketing Director for freeFall Theatre. “It was very easy for me to dress up in drag and do whatever Garry wanted me to do.
“I had been doing drag for years, but these shows were so popular, and so packed, that Garry really created my niche here in this area.”
An actor and singer with impeccable comic timing, big bug eyes and a cartoonish voice that can go from a whisper to an hysterical roar within the syntax of a single sentence, McGee is well known in the bay area for his performances in comedies like The Producers, The Musical of Musicals and Into the Woods.
In a wig and a dress, however, he is entertainment on another level entirely. He is a whirlwind; never less than Edna Turnblad on steroids (yes, he’s been in Hairspray, too).
“I started doing drag in my 20s, when it was a lot easier,” explains the Georgia native. “When I was a lot thinner and a lot prettier. The first time I did it onstage was during a Salute to Hollywood concert in college, and there was a Carmen Miranda number. And a lot of the young female dancers didn’t even know who Carmen Miranda was.”
McGee, however, did, and he got the part. “I put the fruit on my head, and the makeup on, and I really began to panic. I thought ‘I’m going to college in South Georgia – how is this audience going to respond to this?’ And the crowd loved it. Then it became part of my act.”
As a starving actor in New York, he did drag shows to help pay the bills, and always enjoyed it. Still, “I’ve never even considered myself a drag queen. I think I’m an actor who does drag.”
He’s quick to clarify: “In terms of pride, and gay liberation, and why we celebrate pride, drag queens are at the forefront of that. And getting in drag, and raising money, and raising awareness, is amazing. I will gladly get into drag for Metro.”
His reward, he says, is seeing the happiness his performances bring to people.
“I do lots of different types of roles,” he says. “My first show here at freeFall, The Frogs, I played Pluto, the Ruler of the Underworld, who was a fabulous, flamboyant, Paul Lynde-type character. And I played George Bernard Shaw in the same show.”
Recently, McGee play Eulalie Shinn, the mayor’s wife, in the Asolo Repertory Theatre production of The Music Man; in Pippin, which freeFall will debut in July, “I will be playing Charlemagne, Pippin’s father – and then I’ll also be playing Bertha, his grandmother.”
He’d always told friends and family he would stop doing drag when he turned 40. “And then five years ago we did Mame here at freeFall … and I was like well, that’s out. There goes that.”
Drag, for Matthew McGee, “is not about gender. It’s not about my sexuality. It doesn’t have anything to do with my identity. For me, drag is purely entertainment. It’s a sort of Dame Edna-type, silly thing that I do that people seem to enjoy. It’s part of my bag of tricks.”
Garry Allan Bruel began putting on fundraising plays, readings and concerts in the 1980s, during the earliest, scariest days of the AIDS crisis. Like many in the theater world, he lost more than a few friends to the disease.
By 2006, when the aggregate took on the name the Suncoast AIDS Theatre Project, the serious, LGBTQ-themed dramas and interpretive works had given way almost exclusively to drag parodies.
That’s because they’re light and funny and they put butts in the seats – better for the charities. “In the summertime, people like to laugh,” McGee says.
McGee has appeared in them all, from Blown By the Wind, Goosed and All About Steve to A Wizard of Oz and the all-time money-making champion, The Golden Gurlz Live! (he was Dorothy, the Bea Arthur character).
The title Mommie Queerest was, in fact, Bruel’s idea.
“This is really an homage to Garry Allan Bruel, because he wanted me to do it, and I’m so sad he didn’t get the chance to see it,” says McGee. “Because it’s something he would have loved. He loved all that old-fashioned stuff.”
Mommie Dearest fans will find much to delight in with McGee’s adaptation. “Because it’s a parody, I’ve had to change stuff around – we’re not doing Mommie Dearest, we’re doing our version of it,” he says.
“But you can’t not do ‘No wire hangars – ever!’ or ‘Don’t f—k with me, fellas!’ We’re making it an interactive, fun sort of event.”