Drag and the theatre go together like fishnet stockings and stiletto heels. After all, cross-dressing on stage was standard practice even before Shakespeare (by legal necessity) wrote all those great tragic heroines to be played boys.
The decades since Stonewall have seen a proliferation of shows about drag: “Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cages” and “Kinky Boots,” to name just a few, have overcome cultural homophobia to become substantial hits.
So how does one find a new way of exploring the drag experience when so many have done it before?
Playwright Matthew Lopez, whose New York hit, “The Legend of Georgia McBride”, is now at the Geffen Playhouse, has found an excellent answer to that question.
The title refers to the eventual drag persona of Casey (Andrew Burnap), a young dreamer who earns his living- just barely- as an Elvis impersonator at a Florida bar. He’s damn good at it- but unfortunately, not many people care enough about the King to find that out. Looking for a bigger draw, his boss decides it’s time to change the program and hires a drag performer named Miss Tracy Mills (Matt McGrath) to replace him. Suddenly out of a job, Casey- whose pregnant wife waits for him at home in an apartment with overdue rent- has only one chance to keep himself afloat: to don drag himself and join her show.
With a set-up like that, it’s clear that “Georgia McBride” is intended to be an evening of campy laughs. It’s also clear from the very beginning who its target audience is; during the pre-show, its attractive young leading man comes onstage and begins to warm up with some shirtless pushups. The entire package- with its naïve-straight-boy-meets-jaded-queen premise, “Redneck Riviera” setting, and rack full of glitzy and glittering costumes- is designed as a crowd-pleaser for gay (and gay-friendly) theater-goers of all ages.
It certainly succeeds – but it also rises above the level of well-done burlesque by turning the “drag success story” trope inside out.
On both stage and screen, we’ve seen countless young gay men battle their internalized homophobia in order to claim their inner fabulousness (not that it isn’t a story that needs to be retold); but here, Lopez flips the situation to give us an honest-to-goodness straight boy faced with the same conflict. It’s a refreshing change of perspective, and combined with the unexpected depth of all the characters, it makes for a show which not only touches us but reminds us that the struggle for acceptance is a truly universal one.
Don’t worry, though. “Georgia McBride” may devote some of its 90-plus minutes to small moments of personal truth, but it still has plenty of time for the over-the-top production numbers, acid-tongued one-liners, and epic shade-throwing expected of any good drag show; and its small cast of performers- aided by Mike Donahue’s well-tuned direction and Paul McGill’s witty choreography- are more than capable of bringing it.
Burnap’s Casey is adorable, yes, but also much more: his character’s evolution (both in and out of drag) rings completely true, and his charm and vulnerability shine in every scene – whether he’s reveling in domestic bliss with his bride, learning to trade barbs with his drag mother, or attempting Piaf’s “Padam, Padam” like a deer in the headlights.
McGrath, the other half of this star duo, burns just as brightly as the unsinkable Tracy: equal parts nurturing mentor and domineering diva, he balances both extremes as effortlessly as he dances in heels and finds all the subtleties in between as he goes; and when he eventually appears sans drag, he brings another layer that reveals the character’s even deeper strength. Both actors are superb; together, they’re an unstoppable team.
Credit also goes to Nija Okoro, touching as Casey’s sweet-but-practical wife, Jo; and Searcy masterfully underplays his turn as bar owner Eddie. But it’s Larry Powell who manages to steal some thunder from the stars; as Tracy’s hot-mess drag sister, Rexy, he owns every scene he’s in from the moment he skates onto the stage. He makes her a force to be reckoned with, and ultimately ends up with what may be the play’s most memorable (and surprising) moment when he “reads” Casey over his lack of respect for the heritage of drag.
It’s there where Lopez may be expressing the purpose of his play. Drag, he says, is a protest, a raised fist. That’s an idea that crosses boundaries; anyone who has ever felt pushed down by the world can relate to it. “Georgia McBride” crosses those same boundaries; by taking a straight man down a road usually walked by his gay brothers and sisters, it demonstrates that we are more the same than different, and turns the seemingly exclusive domain of drag into a place where all are welcome. It invites us to celebrate our own authentic selves, whoever they may be.
It’s also invites us to a fabulous time at the theater – and that’s an invitation that should never be refused.
“The Legend of Georgia McBride”
April 12 – May 14
Geffen Playhouse, Gil Cates Theater
10886 Le Conte Avenue
Los Angeles,CA 90024
Box Office Line: (310) 208-5454