Nick Arapoglou plays the title role in “The Legend of Georgia McBride” at Actor’s Express. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRISTOPHER BARTELSKI

Theater review: Move over, RuPaul; here comes ‘Georgia McBride’

When a drag queen named Anorexia Nervosa passes out drunk, sabotaging her Edith Piaf-on-roller-skates routine at a dive bar in the Florida Panhandle, things get real frantic real quick.

The crowd jeers. The club owner paces. And Miss Nervosa’s sidekick, Miss Tracy Mills, bites her nails. What’s a girl to do?

I’ll tell you what you do, honey. You grab Casey, the clueless Elvis impersonator-cum-bartender, squeeze him into a slinky gown and a pair of high heels, and send him out into the spotlight to sink or swim.

And then just like that — “Padam, padam, padam,” to quote his Piaf tune — a star is born.

Instead of puddling into a pool of embarrassment, the kid with the pregnant wife and overdue rent rises to the occasion. Sure, it takes a minute — OK, maybe 10. But as the wigs and corsets fly, the newly hatched Georgia McBride comes to love the cross-dressing life, and Actor’s Express pulls off what is destined to be the comedy smash of the spring season.

But let’s slow down a sec and give you the deets.

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is the handiwork of Matthew Lopez, whom audiences will know as the author of “The Whipping Man,” a play about a Jewish Confederate soldier and his two newly freed slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War. (“Whipping Man” was produced at the Alliance Theatre four years ago.)

That Lopez can summon such wildly different tales is a testament to his considerable talent and speaks to his own backstory. Turns out that Lopez is a gay man who grew up in the Florida Panhandle.

So while he’s conversant with the RuPauls and Lypsinkas of the world, he’s equally familiar with such rough-and-tumble Redneck Riviera watering holes as Cleo’s, where shambling, migraine-prone club owner Eddie (Al Stilo) has had to pull the plug on the Elvis routine of Casey (Nick Arapoglou).

It’s Casey’s heartfelt, complicated journey that drives this show: How does a married straight man come to love the faux-glamorous underworld of the cross-dressing set? How does he learn to wear pantyhose and give shade like the best of them? And how does he respond when his secret is finally revealed, with all the pain, humiliation and stigma that come with such an outing?

Arapoglou is such a fine, natural performer that his biggest challenge seems to be the stage shyness that strikes Casey early on. By the time his character sings his own material (in front of his wife, Jo, no less) and comes out in a Elvis helmet and skirt (delightful!), Casey has found a way to live comfortably in his own skin. And Jo (Falashay Pearson) accepts her man for the woman he’s become.

It’s a squishy and imperfect ending to a tale that is more feather-light than profound. But what redeems this show, directed by Portia Krieger, are the camp shenanigans of Tracy (Jeff McKerley) and Anorexia aka Rexy (Thandiwe DeShazor).

From the moment he makes his entrance in his swept-up, mauve-streaked bouffant, McKerley chomps scenery and revels in the ridiculousness of endless costume and wig changes. Tracy can be a hard-looking woman — more Joan Crawford than Judy Garland — and when she channels her inner fury, she’s a screaming hellcat. (Poor Eddie.)

McKerley has impeccable comedic chops, and Tracy is the role he was born to play. (Can someone please give this man his own show?)

DeShazor, who doubles as the hot mess that is Rexy and the regular guy that is Casey and Jo’s landlord, Jason, is no slouch, either. I had to check the program to make sure it was a single actor playing both parts; his transformation from couch potato to glamour girl is that convincing.

My quibbles about the script aside, pretty much everything about this outrageous romp is top-notch, including Deyah Brenner’s outrageous costumes and Leslie Taylor’s nimble set, which pivots from Casey and Jo’s humble abode to backstage at Cleo’s in a snap. By the final number, even Eddie is grinding his hips to the B-52s’ “Love Shack.”

Doesn’t get much better than this.

THEATER REVIEW

“The Legend of Georgia McBride”

Grade: A-

Though April 16. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Actor’s Express, 887 W. Marietta St., Suite J-107, Atlanta. 404-607-7469, actors-express.com.

Bottom line: Serious good fun.

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