A drag show with heart, The Legend of Georgia McBride tells the feel-good story of Casey (Andrew Burnap), an Elvis impersonator at Cleo’s, a Florida Panhandle dive, who discovers he can make bigger bucks by impersonating women. The play, first produced by Denver Center Theater in 2015 and now in its West Coast premiere at the Geffen, is a bawdy, raucous hoot, thanks to Matthew Lopez’s outrageously funny script, Mike Donahue’s expert direction, and to the dazzling work by Burnap and his four fellow actors (Matt McGrath, Nija Okoro, Larry Powell, and Nick Searcy).
Here’s how young Casey becomes a legend in his time: a flamboyant drag queen named Miss Tracy Mills (McGrath) shows up at Cleo’s and takes him in hand, both literally and figuratively. She persuades him to ditch Elvis in favor of Edith Piaf, whom he’s never even heard of. No matter. She costumes him in a dress and high heels, gives him a French-lipsynching tip or two, shoves him out on stage.
Despite Casey being straight and feeling ashamed to be camping it up like this, he is (naturally) a big hit as Piaf. The rubes throw quarters and dollar bills at him, something that never happened when he belted out “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Tracy continues to teach Casey the tricks of the cross-dressing trade, enabling him to impersonate Streisand, Dietrich and even Lady Gaga in grand, satirical fashion — and to win local fame under the stage moniker of Georgia McBride.
Casey, though boyish, kind, and congenitally optimistic, does have a fatal flaw: he lacks the courage to tell Jo, his wife (Okoro), that he has become a drag queen. All hell breaks out when she discovers the (inevitable) truth. The pregnant Jo leaves Casey, sending him into an emotional tailspin that won’t be sorted out until the final moments of the play.
Georgia McBride’s subplots involve Eddie (Searcy), the hulking, mendacious owner of the dive; Miss Rexy (Powell) Tracy’s alcoholic transvestite sidekick (who is given some of the evening’s bitchiest lines); and Casey and Jo’s landlord, Jason (Powell again). Playwright Lopez skillfully weaves these separate threads into a pleasing, richly-hued whole, aided greatly by E.B. Brooks’ extravagant costumes and Donyale Werle’s fiendishly clever set which allows for swift, seamless scene changes.
The whole piece is a slick bit of showbiz, but its warm heart and tenderly human moments give it a strong emotional underpinning.