Broadway Dragstravagaza Camps Out

Priscilla Queen of the Desert—The Musical combines the two main trends of Broadway musicals: It’s based on a cult movie, and it’s a popsical, with the entire song list made up of preexisting pop hits. When I first heard about it I just assumed that it would include most of the disco tunes from the 1994 Australian cult classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, with original songs filling out the rest of the show. Wrong on both counts. Yes, you have the Village People’s “Go West,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Peaches & Herb’s “Shake Your Groove Thing,” CeCe Peniston’s “Finally,” and the Jerome Kern classic “A Fine Romance,” but Abba’s “Mamma Mia,” which is pretty prominent in the film, was already taken by the Abba popsical of the same name. Added in are a whole bunch of random ’80s hits that clash only slightly with the disco-era ones.

Wade McCollum, Scott Willis, Bryan West and company perform “I Love the Nightlife.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Wade McCollum, Scott Willis, Bryan West and company perform “I Love the Nightlife.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

The lack of Abba means, of course, that we don’t get the immortal line, “No more fucking Abba!” Other favorite zingers may also have gone missing, such as “Oh, for goodness sakes, get down off that crucifix. Someone needs the wood.” But anyone coming to see the touring production of the 2011 Broadway hit (which originated in Australia in 2006) presented by SHN at the Orpheum Theatre will find that there’s still plenty of what made the movie so memorable in the stage show, without it becoming entirely an exercise in nostalgia. Or at least not entirely nostalgia for the film—the songs are a whole other kettle of remember-when, and for the most part they’re a lot of fun. Some of the more sentimental numbers push tender or touching moments to the point of mawkishness; I like Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” just fine, but it’s pretty sappy as an antidote to gay-bashing. Other formerly upbeat hits are given slow and tinkly arrangements, especially the musical soliloquys of protagonist Tick.

If you don’t know the story already, it’s the rollicking road trip of three drag queens through the Australian outback. Tick, a disillusioned but dedicated nightclub drag performer in Sydney (played with comic verve by Wade McCollum). He’s invited to perform at his friend Marion’s casino in far-off Alice Springs in the middle of Australia, and he ropes two fellow drag queens to come along. What he’s not telling them is that Marion (a cheery Christy Faber) is his long-separated wife, and he has an eight-year-old son (a sweet actual eight-year-old Shane Davis, alternating with Will B.) who’s dying to meet him. Along the way they have various fabulous and not-at-all fabulous adventures involving bus breakdowns (the titular Priscilla is their tarted-up pink bus) and glowering rednecks. The film starred Hugo Weaving as Tick, with unforgettable turns by Terence Stamp as classy transsexual drag veteran Bernadette Bassinger and Guy Pearce as the raunchy young spitfire Adam/Felicia Jollygoodfellow.

Wade McCollum, Scott Willis and Bryan West perform "I Will Survive." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Wade McCollum, Scott Willis and Bryan West perform “I Will Survive.” And yes, that dress is made of flip-flops. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott adapted the musical version from Elliott’s screenplay, and it’s directed on tour by David Hyslop, recreating the original staging by Melbourne Theatre Company artistic director Simon Philips, who’s been with the show from the beginning through Broadway. Jonathan Deans and Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design ran amok on opening night at the Orpheum, with the first number all but incomprehensible because of the muddy mix, but it was much improved after the first scene or so. Brian Thomson’s production design is glitzy as all get-out, starting with a big pink lipstick dispenser and a lipstick-drawn map of Australia, and going over the top from there.

The central performers are terrific in the touring production. Besides McCollum’s charming Tick, Scott Willis is a refined and formidable Bernadette, and Bryan West’s outsize exuberance is infectious as Felicia. Joe Hart has simple nice-guy appeal as Bob, the mechanic the gals meet in the middle of nowhere, and Chelsea Zeno steals the show in the small but memorable role of Cynthia, Bob’s over-the-top wife with a hilariously scandalous ping-pong-ball act. The fact that she does it while singing one-hit wonder M’s one hit “Pop Muzik” is just icing on the cake. Speaking of cake, one of the most hysterical moments in the show is Tick’s gleefully melodramatic rendition of “MacArthur Park.” McCollum’s clownish dance while singing it is just priceless.

Wade McCollum and company perform “MacArthur Park” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Wade McCollum and company perform “MacArthur Park”
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Nothing succeeds in this show like excess, from Nik Alexzander’s ear-bleedingly ridiculous rendition of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It” as drag-show emcee Miss Understanding to the recurring trio of angelic R&B divas (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West) lowered down from the heavens in long and cleavagey gowns. Ross Coleman’s hectic ensemble dance numbers are a hoot, such as Felicia’s “Material Girl” number that starts with the Madonna video and gets more and more risqué, or the ludicrous “Go West” with glittery silver cowboy and Village People outfits.  Even selected audience members get to join the dance after intermission for no apparent reason in “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

But really what steals the show more than anything else is the truly marvelous drag costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won an Oscar for the getups in the film. There are more than 500 costumes in the show, including 200 hats and elaborate wig-headdresses, and most of them are fabulous. In fact, the curtain call is just an opportunity to show up some of the most outlandish getups the team dreamed up, and there’s one delightfully clever scene involving one impossible quick-change after another. It’s a camp extravaganza, just as it should be. And if it’s not exactly the movie–if it’s lighter, fluffier and ultimately more inconsequential–that’s as it should be as well, though there are some isolated moments such as a gay-bashing scene where the light touch is a bit off-putting. And if parts of it along the way are a hot mess, well, there’s something appropriate about that too. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does there’s no stopping it. I don’t know why you’d even want to try.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert—The Musical
Through August 31
Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #88 of 2013, attended August 22.

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