Drag, disco, divas and – surprise – delight in Priscilla

Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Wade McCollum (center) is Tick/Mitzi performing “MacArthur Park” in the Broadway touring company of Priscilla Queen of the Desert: the Musical at the Orpheum Theatre. Below: McCollum (left) as Mitzi, Scott Willis (center) as Felicia and Bryan West as Bernadette perform the disco anthm “I Will Survive.” Photos by Joan Marcus

Musical theater’s rush to turn every movie into a Broadway show has taught us to tread carefully and lower our expectations. For every Billy Elliot or Hairspray or The Producers there’s a Cry Baby or Catch Me If You Can or The Little Mermaid or Shrek or Sunset Boulevard or Sister Act or Leap of Faith or Young Frankenstein and the list goes on. And on

So it’s understandable to come to the splashy Broadway musical adaptation of the absolutely charming 1994 movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with some trepidation. Banishing original music and lyrics in favor of ’70s and ’80s disco and pop hits further lowers the bar of expectation as the tale of two drag queens and a transsexual on a road trip through the Australian outback makes its way to the stage

The surprise, then, is that Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical is actually quite fun and not devoid of charm. A hit in London in 2009 and then a modest success on Broadway two years later, the show loses some of the depth and heart of the movie but has instead all the glitz, glamour and fabulousness you’d want from a Broadway-sized drag pageant.

The touring production of Priscilla, now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season, certainly doesn’t look like a scaled-down road production. The music is loud, the lights are flashy and the set, especially the bus called Priscilla, has all kinds of nifty, sparkly surprises.

Priscilla 1

But nothing in this show, not the delightful performances or the still-serviceable plot, compares to the joy of the costumes designed by the same team that won an Oscar for creating such memorable outfits in the movie. Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner go all out with the outsize marvels they pile onto the heads and shoulders of a cast that knows how to work a costume. It’s less like a movie has been adapted for the stage and more like a gay pride parade (or perhaps Mardi Gras in Sydney) has veered off the city streets and onto a local stage. The Australia pageant at the show’s finale — filled with birds and koalas and kangaroos and iconic architecture — is a jaw dropper.

The plot remains essentially the same as the movie: Tick (Wade McCollum), a Sydney drag performer, recruits two friends, the dignified, older transsexual Bernadette (Scott Willis) and spoiled younger drag queen Adam (Bryan West) to head into the heart of the Australian desert to perform at a casino run by Tick’s — gasp! — wife. The girls end up with an old school bus that somehow manages to be big enough for them, their food and drink and all their gigantic costumes as well as some kitschy decorations.

While on the road, the girls encounter small-town homophobia in the form of unruly, violent mobs and acceptance in the form of a nice mechanic named Bob (Joe Hart) who happens to have a mail-order bride (Chelsea Zeno) who can do a trick with ping-pong balls that is honestly one of the funniest things seen on a stage in quite some time.

Along the way, they sing and lip-synch to recycled pop songs, some of which — “I Say a Little Prayer” as a father’s ode to a son, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” at a funeral, “Always on My Mind” as an absent parent’s apology to a child — are very cleverly utilized in the storytelling. Other numbers, like “MacArthur Park” or “Shake Your Groove Thing” are just excuses for good-time numbers and another round of eye-popping costumes.

As movie to stage adaptations go, Priscilla starts of shakily (a drag queen just has to throw out an insult to lesbians within the first few minutes) and gains traction as it pumps up the spectacle, disarms the audience and turns the story of drag queens putting on a show into the actual drag show itself, which is not such a bad deal after all.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Priscilla star Wade McCollum and a host of San Francisco’s greatest drag queens for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical continues through Aug. 31 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$210. Call 888-746-1799 or vsit www.shnsf.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *