Stage preview: Actor in 'Priscilla' hopes the show alters perceptions


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Wade McCollum was walking to a party not long ago, mentally running through the list of costume changes for his latest show.

"I came up with between 20 and 23, I'm not sure. But I know it's a lot," he said.

Nearing final curtain, Mr. McCollum ends up modeling a drag version of the Sydney Opera House: "I feel I am wearing, alternately, an emergency building or a semi-truck," he said, laughing.

Welcome to "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Musical," where outrageous attire knows no limits. Not for nothing did Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner win a Tony Award for costumes.

'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Musical'

Where: Benedum Center

When: 7:30 p.m. Tues., Wed., Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. next Sun.

Tickets: $20-$68;412-456-6666; www.trustarts.org.

The latest in the PNC Broadway Across America spectacular rolls into the Benedum Center for eight performances beginning Tuesday (due to mature language and some situations, it's recommended for ages 13 and up). Based on Stephan Elliott's 1994 movie, "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," it's the story of two Australian drag queens, Tick/Mitzi (Mr. McCollum) and Adam/Felicia (Bryan West), and their transgender friend, Bernadette (Scott Willis).

Tick is on his way to remote Alice Springs, Australia, where his estranged wife, Marion, runs a casino. She wants him to get to know their 6-year-old son; he is reluctant to let his companions know about this family from a former life.

Bernadette is mourning the death of her lover, and studly young Adam is just keen for the adventure.

Priscilla, their tricked-out bus, is fabulous in its own right. Were this "RuPaul's Drag Race," it would be serving automotive realness.

The show, which had its Broadway debut in March 2011, doesn't draw on the disco-era ABBA songs that serve as backdrop in the movie. Rather, it's a jukebox full of pop, opening with "It's Raining Men" and bouncing lightly across hits such as "Material Girl," "I Will Survive," "Finally" and "MacArthur Park."

The musical's book is by Mr. Elliott and Allan Scott, with direction by Simon Phillips and choreography by Ross Coleman. Stephen "Spud" Murphy handled the musical supervision and arrangements.

For Oregon native Mr. McCollum, who turns 36 on Monday, "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" was a seminal movie.

"Really, it was a hallmark in my rite of passage as a teenager," he said. "It was gritty, almost like you were living with these people for a month. You got to see the inner workings of these relationships, and also the complexities of the relationships," he said.

The film depicted an outlandish side of drag, to be sure, but it also portrayed loving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships in a way seldom seen at the time in mainstream media.

The actor described the musical as "lovingly from Australia, and it's obstinately from Australia ... it has this bizarre, strange beauty, and I love that about it."

It also embraces a bawdy Aussie sensibility. The infamous scene from the movie where a woman creatively launches pingpong balls while dancing atop a bar? It's in there.

The allure of the road is something Mr. McCollum knows well. His father was a drummer in a rock band, and for the first five years of his life, he and his parents traveled around North America.

"It was a beautiful early childhood that kind of gave me this connection to impermanence and the beauty of chance."

"Priscilla" is the first time Mr. McCollum has done a national tour, although he's no stranger to regional theater. His turn in John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" earned acclaim in Los Angeles and became a defining role.

Hedwig tells the story of an East German boy who undergoes a sex change in order to marry the man she loves. But the operation isn't entirely a success, and life doesn't turn out as she expected. Audiences are drawn in through a vibrant score of rock and punk songs, and Mr. McCollum said he sees parallels between the actor/audience relationships in "Hedwig" and "Priscilla."

"To take this person who is just a freak of nature, this absolute anomaly, and make her somewhat universally relatable, that is just a miracle to me. That's the power of theater, and this show, 'Priscilla,' has a lot of that same energy."

Audiences don't have to have a familiarity with drag, or Australia, for that matter. But "Priscilla" is as much about changing perceptions as having fun.

"I think, through the course of two hours, they find themselves being broke open and having feelings for these people who they may have judged, and discovering they are more like themselves than they thought they were.

"In the end, I think that elicits that rock and roll response."

Mr. McCollum spent 2011 in theaters across the country, including a star turn as the Emcee in "Cabaret" in Dallas. There, he became fast friends with Kate Wetherhead, who played Sally.

Ms. Wetherhead and Andrew Keenan-Bolger are filming the third season of "Submissions Only," a Web series comedy about actors auditioning in New York City. Mr. McCollum was playing the lead in "Dracula" in Rochester when his former co-star called to see if he would come to New York near the end of the second season.

He plays Nolan Grigsby, a director who just might be Mr. Right for Colin Hanlon's auditions director.

"It's been an incredible boon to have such a group of friends, and to be on set practicing our TV skills," said Mr. McCollum.

Variety has reported that Broadway producer Kevin McCollum (no relation), who has a financial stake in the Web series, might be shopping it to broadcast TV. This has been done before, with shows such as "Children's Hospital" and recently "Burning Love."

"Submissions Only" closed a circle for Mr. McCollum when he was on set recently. Also there that day was actor Will Swenson, who played the part of Tick on Broadway at the Palace Theater.

"It was really fun. We got to talking about the show and all the little changes they've made. And, I'm wearing all his clothes," he said.

All 20 to 23 outfits.

theater

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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