THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE

Two stars are born in the Geffen Playhouse West Coast Premiere of The Legend Of Georgia McBride. One is the Florida Panhandle drag queen whose reputation gives Matthew Lopez’s crowd-pleasing comedy its name. The other is Andrew Burnap, whose revelatory performance as an Elvis impersonator who discovers a whole new love of performing portends huge things ahead for the 2016 Yale School Of Drama MFA grad.

Casey (Burnap) may not be a dead ringer for The King, but with a face and physique just made for the latest Calvin Klein underwear ad, he fills out his skintight Elvis jumpsuit quite nicely indeed, and once the lip-synching gets started, Casey’s not half bad at what he does by night at the Panama City dive run by good ol’ boy Eddie (Nick Searcy).

Unfortunately for Casey, business isn’t all that great these days despite some expert hip-swiveling, just one reason the rent check he owes landlord Jason (Larry Powell) is overdue.

No wonder then that when Eddie informs Casey that he’s being replaced by a drag queen, the news does not sit well with our handsome hero, particularly since he’s just been informed by wife Jo (Nija Okoro) that a baby is on the way.

The drag queen in question is Eddie’s cousin “Miss Tracy Mills” (Matt McGrath), whose arrival in town alongside fellow female impersonator Anorexia “Miss Rexy” Nervosa (Powell), just might bring in the bucks that Elvis has not, that is if Miss Rexy can say sober long enough to make her Panama City debut.

(Spoiler alert) A passed-out Miss Rexy soon leaves Miss Tracy and Eddie in a bit of a pickle, that is until they realize that Elvis in spangled white satin isn’t all that far removed from drag, and despite considerable protests, Casey is persuaded to impersonate Edith Piaf for a night.

Not surprisingly, it takes the artist previously known as Elvis a while to get used to padded bra-and-girdle, panties, and heels, and truth be told, his first go at Edith suggests it may be his last.

It won’t, and much of the pleasure in The Legend Of Georgia McBride is in watching Casey, whose love of performing dates back to his high school’s Sweeney Todd, discover his feminine side (and in so doing, like Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie learn how to be a better man).

Lopez’s play requires more suspension of disbelief than simply asking us to accept Casey’s transformation. We’ve got to buy that a drag show could become an instant hit in a straight man’s bar, and that when it does, Jo could remain completely clueless in an Internet age.

But no matter. Under Mike Donahue’s inspired direction, McGrath gives arguably the most fabulous (and richly-layered) performance of his career with expert support from Okoro’s loving but patience-tried Jo, Searcy’s redneck charmer of an Eddie, and especially Powell’s double-turn as macho landlord and ab-fab drag queen. (Powell’s tribute to and defense of the queens who’ve paved Miss Rexy’s way to drag is a stunner.)

Still, if there’s a performance folks will be talking about, it’s Burnap’s, at first glance “just” a pretty face with sculpted bod to match, but impressions can be deceiving as the Shakespeare Fest vet reveals not just Casey’s skin but his heart and his soul and the superstar within, and some terrific vocal/guitar chops to boot. (It’s to playwright Lopez’s credit that not only is Casey’s heterosexuality a given, he’s pretty much homophobia-free.)

With choreographer Paul McGill providing McGrath, Burnap, and Powell with some showstopping dance moves to execute in costume designer E.B. Brooks’s divalicious drag and Tiphanie Grace’s appropriately over-the-top makeup and wigs, scenic designer Donyale Werle and lighting designer Josh Epstein giving us both Panama City drab and Vegas-adjacent flash, and sound designer Jill BC Du Boff making it sound spectacular, Georgia McBride’s production design is as buzz-worthy as her legend.

Casey’s “Lost And Found” features Lopez’s lyrics set to Joe Tippett’s music. Jill Gold is production stage manager and Julie Ann Renfro is assistant stage manager. Carole Soueidan is makeup artist.

Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA. Dashawn Barnes, Dennis Cockrum, and Matthew Hancock are understudies.

It’s hard to imagine a more welcome antidote to today’s post-election despair than The Legend Of Georgia McBride, and with Andrew Burnap making his sensational West Coast stage debut, audiences won’t want to miss this double-star turn at the Geffen.

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Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Through May 14. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00. Reservations: 310 208-5454
www.geffenplayhouse.com

–Steven Stanley
April 13, 2017
Photos: Jeff Lorch Photography

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