Casey, a struggling Elvis impersonator at a dive called Cleo’s in the Florida Panhandle, is a handsome, sweet-natured goof-off. His act isn’t exactly packing them in — Elvis might as well be George Washington to audiences today. But why should a guy fret over money when he has charm, washboard abs and a knack for gyrating his hips to “Blue Suede Shoes”?
When Casey’s wife, Jo, yells at him for bouncing the rent check for a Papa John’s pizza, he can’t understand why she’s so upset. There are still a few slices left and, besides, he just bought a new flashy jumpsuit that’s bound to breathe new life into professional prospects.
Casey (charmingly played by Andrew Burnap) has a lot of maturing to do in “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” a flamboyantly fun if formulaic comedy by Matthew Lopez. The play, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse under the direction of Mike Donahue, tightens the noose on Casey’s life in the quick and dirty manner that guarantees he’s heading for humorous extremes.
While arguing about the rent check, Jo (a radiantly gritty Nija Okoro) announces that she’s pregnant. Jason (Larry Powell), the couple’s landlord, tells Casey he’s going to have to move out if he can’t come up with the money. And Eddie (Nick Searcy), Casey’s boss at Cleo’s, is ready to cut Elvis loose.
But just when it seems that all hope is lost for Casey, some unexpected career counseling appears before him in the shape of a drag queen named Miss Tracy Mills (the fabulous Matt McGrath). Eddie’s cousin, Tracy arrives at the bar with her finger-snapping sidekick Miss Rexy (Powell doing double duty) in desperate search of a new gig.
Before you know it, Cleo’s is transformed into a drag hot spot. After Rexy goes AWOL (in a sloppily executed bit of comic convenience), Tracy teaches Casey the tricks of the cross-dressing trade. The jumpsuit is eventually cut up into a country-western diva’s costume, and Elvis dies so that Georgia McBride can be born.
But how can a straight dude explain to his wife that the cash he’s hauling home is coming from a new line of work that involves full makeup and falsies? The plot points leading to Casey’s crisis couldn’t be more predictably arranged. “The Legend of Georgia McBride” makes an outrageous set-up seem completely familiar. It’s still enjoyable, but don’t expect many surprises.
Lopez, author of the much-produced play “The Whipping Man,” has a style that combines bold ideas with commercial execution. “Georgia McBride” seems like a laboratory experiment in which the musicals “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” and “The Full Monty” are melded into a mainstream campy comedy with just enough LGBTQ consciousness to keep the PC police at bay. (Rexy delivers a speech to Casey on what it really means to be a drag queen that seems like it might have been edited out of a Harvey Fierstein drama for being too preachy.)
The drag performances are lively though not spectacular examples of the form. McGrath shines in a Broadway revue number, but Burnap fails to show why Georgia McBride catches fire the way she does. Perhaps no artistry could make the farfetched situation believable, but Casey’s lip-syncing and sexpot dance moves cry out for more of Tracy’s coaching. The blare of the music must substitute at times for the missing verve.
The extravagant costumes, designed with insouciant flair by E.B. Brooks, are jocular treats. And the ingenious set, constructed by Donyale Werle in a way that collapses home, dressing room and barroom into one another, makes efficiency seem like stage poetry.
The direct address greetings of Searcy’s Eddie instantly turns the Geffen audience into patrons at Cleo’s. And choreography be damned, what red-blooded American theatergoer doesn’t get a hoot out of seeing a man swan about onstage in a dress?
But what’s most memorable about “The Legend of Georgia McBride” is the tenderness between Burnap’s Casey and Okoro’s Jo — the silly method he has for rubbing her feet, the hurt and disappointment they show after a fight. Casey may still be a boy but he’s a lovable one. And as he grows into a man by discovering himself as a woman onstage, he becomes even more endearing.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘The Legend of Georgia McBride’
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends May 14
Tickets: $32-$90 (subject to change)
Information: (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
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