By Manning Harris
For a sheer rollicking great time, Actor’s Express’ brilliant comedy “The Legend of Georgia McBride” has set the gold standard for the year. I haven’t had such a fun time in a theatre in ages; it works on all cylinders; it runs through April 16 and is not to be missed.
Express Artistic Director Freddie Ashley writes in the program: “Elvis and drag queens? Sign me up.” Are you intrigued? It gets better and better, just like the show, written by Matthew Lopez and directed by New York’s Portia Krieger. One of Mr. Ashley’s many strengths is his excellent connections.
We’re in the Florida Panhandle (sometimes uncharitably called the Redneck Riviera); but out of deserts flowers may bloom. One such daffodil of optimism is named Casey (Nick Arapoglou); he’s barely eking out a living as an Elvis impersonator in a club called Cleo’s, run by Eddie (Al Stilo), who’s getting desperate because “Elvis” is drawing few customers. Oh—the other half of Cleo’s treats is a drag show.
Casey is a young man married to Jo (Falashay Pearson), who’s sweet but about out of patience with Eddie’s financial irresponsibility (they can’t pay the rent this month). Also, Jo announces she is pregnant, so now their situation is even more dire.
But is Casey worried? Not for a second: not even when he learns he’s been fired. He kisses Jo and tells her not to worry—things will work out. However, when drag performer Rexy (Thandiwe DeShazor) passes out just before her Edith Piaf-on-roller-skates number (her full name isn’t Anorexia Nervosa for nothing), drag star Miss Tracy Mills (Jeff McKerley) needs a replacement—fast.
Guess who’s available: Casey; and Eddie says, “Get a dress on and get on that stage or get out,” or words to that effect. Like Blanche DuBois, Casey is very adaptable to circumstances, and after all, he’s used to performing; and since he’ll be lip-syncing to a French song, no one will notice if it’s not perfect.
To me, Casey is one of life’s winners; he may seem down on his luck at times, but his inner joy and irrepressible optimism see him through. He doesn’t want to put on a dress, make-up, and sequins (well, as Elvis, he’s used to the sequins), but once he decides to do it, the Universe moves to help him—because he’s good—and he gets better! (His wife doesn’t know he’s doing this—yet.)
Mr. Arapoglou is ideally suited to play Casey; in other roles I’ve seen him shine in (“The Toxic Avenger,” “Avenue Q,” “My Name Is Asher Lev,” “Gifts of the Magi,”), let’s just say he carries his own spotlight—in a completely charming way. Incidentally, the actor is very much in demand for regional and national commercials.
Tracy, of course, becomes Casey’s mentor and “drag mother,” as they say. Mr. McKerley is so exceedingly funny, witty, and (at times) acerbic that he takes your breath away. That he’s so brilliant dressed as a woman will come as no surprise for those who saw his unforgettable Frau Blücher in Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s 2015 “Young Frankenstein” (“He Vas My Boyfriend”). He’s even better here.
Jo is, big surprise, nonplussed to discover that husband Casey is performing in drag (even though he’s bringing home nice paychecks). Part of the shock is her comic, dismaying discovery: “You’re prettier than me!” As usual, Casey smooths things out and everything is copacetic.
The show may sound gimmicky; I assure you it is not. Playwright Lopez writes genuinely funny comic dialogue, delivered flawlessly by this perfect cast. And the play, as Mr. Ashley points out, is partly “about the ownership and assertion of identity.” But mainly, it is knock-down, drag-out funny.
In these tense political times, you owe it to yourself to see “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” The show will be selling out; so please get tickets now.
For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.