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Review: Bring your big wig and killer heels to the theatrical party that is ‘The Legend of Georgia McBride’

Review: Bring your big wig and killer heels to the theatrical party that is ‘The Legend of Georgia McBride’
Stephen Michael Spencer, left, J. Stephen Brantley and Bill Brochtrup in “The Legend of Georgia McBride” at the New Vic Theatre in Santa Barbara. (Jeanne Tanner)

To misquote Shakespeare: Some men are born for drag, some achieve drag, and some have drag thrust upon ’em.

Casey, the protagonist of Matthew Lopez’s irresistible 2015 comedy “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” is firmly in the third camp.

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How does somebody accidentally do drag? That’s exactly what the pregnant wife of Casey (Stephen Michael Spencer) asks upon discovering that he has been secretly making a living by lip-syncing to country music in heels, wig and miniskirt. A good living. A packing-the-house-four-sets-a-night living. He has become, in fact, a “legend.” But he didn’t mean to. It just sort of happened.

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that an ordinary, working-class Florida boy like Casey, without the slightest interest in cross-dressing, could find himself one night with no alternative but to star in a drag show at a dive bar.

The challenge of engineering so far-fetched a scenario could take out a less confident playwright. But Lopez doesn’t blink. He winks, yes, and smiles mischievously, then rolls up his sleeves and wrangles his cumbersome, ludicrous plot into place so deftly, and with such infectious, tongue-in-cheek delight, that the audience enjoys getting played like a cheap piano in Ensemble Theatre Company’s production at the New Vic in Santa Barbara.

It is awfully convenient that Casey happens to be a struggling Elvis impersonator. And that his training in the niche skill of lip-syncing dovetails with the demands of his new career.

Props to Lopez for his setup chops — and to director Jenny Sullivan for a fast-paced and spirited staging that doesn’t give us a second to question too hard and burst the ever-inflating bubble of this sweet, optimistic show.

Scenic designer Keith Mitchell and costume designer Alex Jaeger have taken this opportunity to indulge their playfulness and flair. With a divine soundtrack (brought to life by sound designer Randall Robert Tico), the result is so glorious that it probably doesn’t really need a plot.

And yet the story does hold up, suspending our disbelief throughout significant turbulence and some sharp turns. Lopez has a secret weapon: the character of Miss Tracy Mills (Bill Brochtrup).

An aging drag queen with the poise of a debutante, an unerring knack for the dry aside, a profound understanding of irony and the nurturing instinct of a mama bear, Tracy seizes the reins of the play the moment she arrives and proceeds to steer it discreetly but commandingly to its resolution.

Matt McGrath originated this role; those who got to see him in 2016 at the Geffen Playhouse could reasonably worry that no other actor could fill his pumps. Brochtrup hadn’t done a lot of drag before, but he takes to it like a duck to sparkly pink water. He’s so much fun to watch that even though you’re a little worried about his feet in those shoes, you don’t want him to stop dancing.

Spencer is wonderful as Casey, and so is Keiana Richàrd as his wife, Jo Jo. J. Stephen Brantley, playing a shy bar owner who gradually warms up to the spotlight, and Carlton Byrd, double cast as Casey’s landlord and his fierce drag nemesis, Rexy, provide many of the show’s best laughs.

The play isn’t just nonstop camp candy. It has wisdom to impart, although it could probably do so just as effectively without the occasional moments of preaching. Lucky for us, they don’t last long long. The razzle dazzle is back almost before you miss it.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The Legend of Georgia McBride’

Where: Ensemble Theatre Company at the New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St., Santa Barbara

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (see website for complete schedule); ends Dec. 23

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Tickets: $25-$75

Information: (805) 965-5400, www.etcsb.org

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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