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Elvis impersonator is a drag queen in ‘The Legend of Georgia McBride’ play

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Andrew Swackhammer plays an Elvis impersonator turned drag queen in the 'The Legend of Georgia McBride' opening at Barebones Black Box in Braddock

Since Elvis Presley’s death over four decades ago, there have been tens of thousands of Elvis impersonators in garish, sequined costumes doing their part to keep The King’s legend alive.

Some are more successful than others. So, what happens when an Elvis impersonator reaches the end of the line? Does he check into “Heartbreak Hotel”?

“The Legend of Georgia McBride,” opening Thursday at Barebones Black Box Theater in Braddock, takes this scenario and turns it on its head: Elvis leaves the building and returns as a drag queen.

The play, written by Matthew Lopez and making its Pittsburgh premiere, tells the story of Casey, a young Elvis impersonator struggling to make ends meet. When he is fired from his gig as an Elvis impersonator in a small town Florida bar, he’s forced to take a job as a lip-synching drag queen and accidentally becomes one of the most sought after drag queens in the Panhandle.

For a company known for gritty plays like “A Steady Rain,“ “Lobby Hero,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the show is a step in a different direction.

“I’d say this play still has some grit, but it is a bit of a departure for us,” says Patrick Jordan, Barebones Artistic Director who is directing the production. “We’ve all been so beat up lately with the barrage of negativity and conflict, we found the perfect piece that brings themes of acceptance and transformation to the forefront. In addition, it’s a chance to really let our hair down here.”

At the center of the fun is actor Andrew Swackhammer who, after working in New York, has returned to Pittsburgh to play Casey.

“This character is a smiley, positive dude whose world crumbles around him and he has no choice but to accept the first offer that comes his way because he has a family to support,” says Swackhammer. “And because he’s such a loving person, he allows the bar to transform him into this role.”

Swackhammer says there is a definite challenge to playing an easy going country boy, happy with his life as an Elvis impersonator, to extending well beyond the character’s comfort zone to create an acid-tongued drag performer.

“It’s really difficult because he starts out as an Elvis impersonator, then he gets into his regular street clothes, and goes back into Elvis, and then you have the physicality of a straight man trapped in a female drag persona, trying to let the audience see the details of this person still finding his womanhood,” said Swackhammer.

Jordan says the audience will find a lot of humor in Casey’s scenes with his “Obi-Wan Kenobi” of drag, Tracy Mills played by Shua Potter, who has returned to Pittsburgh after years of working as a drag queen in New York.

“The transformation that Andrew goes through is amazing,” said Jordan. “It’s something to behold for the audience. The man is doing everything. He is singing, he’s dancing, he’s playing the guitar and he’s dancing in high heels on top of everything else. ”

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” also marks the return to the Pittsburgh stage of actor David Conrad of “The Ghost Whisperer” and “Agents of SHIELD” fame. He last worked with Jordan on “Burn This,” produced by Conrad at the New Hazlett Theater in 2009. In “Georgia McBride” he plays the bar owner who decides to bring in a drag act to save his business.

“I never get cast in character parts so it’s great to do this,” said Conrad. “I haven’t read a play that I thought was this well constructed in terms of being dramatically entertaining, runs like a train, hits the ground running, doesn’t stop, great lyrics, great lines. And it’s positive and joyful. The play is about finding your voice.”

Jordan says there is a lot packed into the 90-minute show. “There’s a lot going on. An overarching theme of the play is tolerance. And listening to one another and accepting people for who they are, not who you think they should be.”

Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or by email at [email protected]