Matt McGrath and Andrew Burnap in The Legend of Georgia McBride, directed by Mike Donahue, at the Geffen Playhouse.
Matt McGrath and Andrew Burnap in The Legend of Georgia McBride, directed by Mike Donahue, at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Jeff Lorch Photography)

It is one of the age-old theater questions: Can a performance rise the level of a so-so script, adding depth missing from the dialogue and characterizations? Broadway actor Matt McGrath proves the answer can be yes in The Legend of Georgia McBride, a comedy, now playing at the Geffen, about drag queens in a run-down bar in the Florida Panhandle.

Casey (Andrew Burnap), a young, goofy Elvis impersonator, finds himself in financial straits when his boss, the owner of a failing country-western bar, brings in his drag-queen cousin, Miss Tracy Mills (McGrath), to drum up business. Left with few options, Casey dons a wig and some makeup and goes on as Miss Georgia McBride. Once his stage fright dissipates, Casey discovers he is a natural at drag. However, as his career takes off, he still can't manage to tell his pregnant wife (Nija Okoro) that he makes all that cash wearing high heels.

Matthew Lopez's script features many funny lines and captures the drag culture that has become more mainstream thanks in large part to the likes of television show RuPaul's Drag Race. Despite this, the play is cliché-ridden and mostly predictable. None of the characters react in a particularly surprising way. The most compelling two, Miss Tracy Mills and her cohort, Miss Anorexia Nervosa (Larry Powell), service the plot without having backstories or much of in the way of motivation. The play would have benefited from exploring these elements further, as it is already light on its feet, clocking in at 100 minutes (at least 25 of which are lip-sync performances, leaving little time left for character development). Instead, we're left wondering how Miss Tracy Mills emerged from a small town to become a fabulous and talented queen.

Director Mike Donahue keeps the production breezy by highlighting the splashy musical numbers and allowing the actors to shine beyond the script. McGrath is sassy and salty as the Auntie Mame of drag queens. Maternal to Casey, but never subservient, his Miss Mills is a force of nature. Larry Powell as the roller-skating screwup Ms. Rexy is a natural at capturing the feminine mystique. Powell delivers Lopez's best speech about drag being a protest not a hobby, and he rocks that moment. Getting an opportunity to play Elvis Presley, Edith Piaf, and a bluesy country singer, Burnap brings pathos to all his numbers. When he sings the only original number "Lost and Found," he tugs at the heartstrings.

The show's design cleverly remembers that these are queens on a budget fighting in a small town. As a result, the costumes by E.B. Brooks, hair and makeup by Tiphanie Grace, and choreography by Paul McGill are appropriately gritty and unpolished, while still granting the characters the dignity they deserve. Donyale Werle's honky-tonk bar is so authentically grimy, the audience might swear they smell stale beer.

With a too heavy reliance on musical numbers, The Legend of Georgia McBride is a weak story that has been told much better in the past. However, thanks to stellar work from a cast of seasoned pros, the enthusiastically applauding audience barely notices the scruff behind the made-up exterior.