Matt McGrath, left, and Andrew BurnapEXPAND
Matt McGrath, left, and Andrew Burnap
Jeff Lorch

In the Grand Tradition of Tootsie, a Straight Guy Tries Drag in The Legend of Georgia McBride

The Legend of Georgia McBride is one of those rare charmers, a sweet story about nice people that manages to be neither syrupy nor cloying. Directed by Mike Donahue at the Geffen Playhouse, the production features a strong ensemble that brings heft and heart to a very amiable comedy.

Matthew Lopez’s amusing script revolves around a straight guy who, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Tootsie and Jack Lemmon’s in Some Like It Hot, is impelled by circumstance to dress in drag. A young blue-collar dude in Panama City, Florida, Casey (Andrew Burnap) builds his identity around two things: his Elvis impersonation, which he regularly performs to a sparse crowd at a run-down dive near the beach, and his happy marriage to Jo (Nija Okoro), a warm and loving but practical-minded person who, unlike Casey, understands how important it is to pay the rent before splurging on pizza or flashy new outfits for his act. Jo’s frustration with her husband takes on new urgency when she discovers that she’s pregnant; he’s delighted whereas she, facing eviction and a stack of unpaid bills, worries seriously about their future.

Things change radically for Casey with the arrival, at work, of his employer’s cousin, a drag queen named Miss Tracy Mills (Matt McGrath), and her partner Miss Rexy (Larry Powell). Only then does his boss, Eddie (Nick Searcy), inform him that his Elvis act has been dropped for lack of an audience. Casey is kept on as bartender until one evening, when Rexy flakes, he’s called upon to quick-change into a dress and lip-synch an Edith Piaf impersonation onstage. Uncomfortable, he protests, but then the tips start rolling in, and suddenly a lot of his financial problems are solved. One night he gets the inspired idea to remake his Elvis costume — and presto, the inimitable country music drag queen Georgia McBride is born.

That The Legend of Georgia McBride clicks from the start rests in part on Burnap’s charm and even more so on the two-pronged appeal of Burnap and Okoro. Together they depict a young couple much in love, teetering on the brink of homelessness. So often portrayals of this sort seem forced, but here you buy 100 percent into this pair’s caring intimacy, and the reasons Jo forgives Casey his careless irresponsibility. Part of this comes from the script, part from Donahue’s sensitive direction, and a lot from the fine work of these skilled actors.

Still, this early scene is part of the prelude. The comedy really takes off after the entrance of the imposing Miss Tracy. McGrath, who created the role when the show premiered in New York in 2015, has lost none of his edge, and he is as effective in his subtler moments as he is when hilariously commanding the stage in one of costume designer E.B. Brooks' fabulous gowns. As his sulking sidekick, Powell is also spot-on; neither of these performers resorts to the mugging typical of drag-queen depictions. And as the down-to-earth Eddie, Searcy wears the character's world-weary practicality like a glove.

Other kudos belong to Paul McGill for the rollicking choreography, Tiphanie Grace for the comic wigs and makeup, Donyale Werle for the clever set and Josh Epstein for the complicated in-set lighting. While it's true the plot swivels on some shaky contrivances, the sum talent employed in its telling makes up for that in spades.

GO! Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A., through May 31; (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.org.

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