By day, he is a schoolteacher in the Philippines. By night, he becomes the gowned and bejeweled drag entertainer known to all Luzon as Mama Cid.

Across the world, an American high schooler dons girls’ clothes too, but for a very different reason. “This is how I have to be,” he tells his mother. “Otherwise I die.”

Playwright Michael Premsrirat takes these two characters—separated by an ocean and several decades—and ties their stories together quite extraordinarily in The Girl Most Likely To, now getting its World Premiere production under the truly inspired direction of Jon Lawrence Rivera.

 A love of women’s fashions is but one of several links between Mama Cid (Ramón de Ocampo) and The Boy (Tobit Raphael). Both are Filipino, though the U.S.-born younger of the two has been raised by his single mom (Fran de Leon) to be as all-American as she can make him. Both Mama Cid and The Boy fall for the wrong man. And both see their lives through a pop music lens.

The Girl Most Likely To alternates scenes set in 1980s Luzon with ones taking place in contemporary America.

Taking a break from her nightclub act, Mama Cid informs the audience, “There’s no parade for us.  No little boy wants to grow up and be ‘just like that.’”  The Boy is caught by his mother looking ever so fetching in her Victoria’s Secret robe. A U.S Air Force airman (Eric Schulman) takes a buddy (Nicholas Downs, as The American) to the drag bar where Mama Cid entertains, his naive buddy’s reaction to her a wide-eyed, “You were just really … Wow!” The Boy meets The Girl (Mandela Bellamy), a African-American teen with weight and self-esteem issues and a serious case of homophobia. The American finds the lure of Mama Cid’s nightclub act irresistible even after learning that she and her fellow entertainers are “fags in dresses.” An unexpected friendship develops between The Boy and The Girl because, as she tells him, he’s the only boy who truly talks to her. Mama Cid and The American become lovers, the airman under no illusion that his sweetheart’s body parts are anything but male. Dressed as a girl, The Boy catches the eye of Twilight (Schulman), a baseball-loving 20something far less likely than The American to be accepting of “a chick with a dick” if he should get to third base.

Were The Girl Most Likely To merely the straight play (no pun intended) described above, it would still prove an eye-opening look at just how differently two male-to-female cross-dressers see themselves and the world around them.

 Playwright Premsrirat has something more fabulous up his sleeve, however, as befits his two fabulous lead characters, a daring concept revealed in an opening sequence which has the entire cast, most of them in costume designer Mylette Nora’s female drag, lip-syncing to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman,” and performing choreographer Giovanni Ortega’s music video-ready moves.

And that’s just the start of two hours of riveting, entertaining, gut-punching scenes interspersed with song-and-dance mini-extravaganzas. In the ‘80s, it’s Sheena Easton’s “Strut” and “For Your Eyes Only” and Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” that get the Filipino drag queens to lip-syncing and dancing. In 2012, it’s Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” and Christina Aguilera’s “Come On Over (All I Want Is You),” “Beautiful,” and an era-spanning “Lady Marmalade” that fuel The Boy’s flights of fancy.

This is an audacious concept indeed, and one that in less skillful hands might fizzle. Fortunately, playwright, director, cast, choreographer, and designers turn potential fizzle into downright dazzle, all the while never forgetting that when societal norms get upended, the consequences can be devastating.

In Mama Cid and The Boy, Premsrirat has gifted de Ocampo and Raphael with a pair of to-die-for roles in which both triumph. De Ocampo, one of the Antaeus Company’s most gifted members, vanishes inside Mama Cid’s divalicious skin, creating from Premsrirat’s words a man of guts, grit, and sense of self most of us could only dream of possessing. That he also happens to look fierce in a dress and lip-sync with the best of them is icing on the cake. Recent UCLA grad Raphael undertakes his most prominent role—and greatest challenge—to date and delivers a performance of exquisite delicacy and depth, the kind of work that ought to put this young actor on the map. That he also happens to be a cute-as-a-button Boy and a pretty-as-a-picture “Bella” is even more icing on the cake.

 Supporting turns are absolutely terrific as well. As The Girl, Bellamy takes a character we’ve seen before (gay boy’s angry gal pal) and gives her layers of pride, shame, bravado, and vulnerability. The splendid de Leon is a lioness of a mom with a heart so tender her fear and anger cannot hide it, a character Premsrirat lets us see both as a grown woman and as a small child, the latter of whom de Leon brings to life with equal parts adorableness and authenticity. In addition to his cameo turn as a by-the-rules high school teacher, Downs does standout work in a pair of larger featured roles. As redneck Buddy, he’s not afraid to be downright despicable; as the hayseed airman known only as The American, he reveals a love and acceptance of Mama Cid that is both unexpected and touching. The excellent Schulman gets the tough assignment of humanizing Twilight, the villain of the piece, a man whose boorishness the actor does not attempt to varnish, nonetheless giving us a character we can understand, if not sympathize with or forgive. Completing the cast are TeJay McGrath and Matthew Thompson in cameo roles that have them playing boys, girls, and (most of the time) boys in girl drag, and doing so stunningly enough to send audience members into flights of fantasy regardless of gender or orientation.

John H. Binkley’s abstract scenic design complements Premsrirat’s script to terrific effect, particularly in its revolving center panel which allows Mama Cid’s and The Boy’s stories to alternate in time and space. Alan Blumenthal’s vivid, varied lighting gets thumbs up too, as do Bob Blackburn’s terrific sound design and Nora’s and Ortega’s aforementioned costumes and choreography.

The Girl Most Likely To is produced for Playwrights’ Arena and the Latino Theater Company by Ted I. Benito and Diane Levine. Adam Flemming is projection designer, Raul Clayton Staggs casting director, Courtney Ryan assistant director, Thompson dance captain, and Jaclyn Kalkhurst stage manager.

In The Girl Most Likely To, Michael Premsrirat has come up with something electric and original. If his powerful play did nothing more than put a personal face on the transgender community, it would be well worth a look-see. Premsrirat, Rivera, and a gifted artistic team turn it into much much more.

LATC (Los Angeles Theatre Center), 514 South Spring St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
April 26, 2012

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