'Priscilla Queen of the Desert' driven to glittery stage spectacle
"Priscilla Queen of the Desert" stars -- center from left, Wade McCollum, Scott Willis and Bryan West -- perform in the number "I Will Survive."
Wade McCollum, left, as Mitzi, Scott Willis as Bernadette and Bryan West as Felicia in the number "I Love the Night Life" from the national tour of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert."
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It's raining men in drag at the Benedum Center -- men in glittery gowns, men in satin Speedos, men in minidresses made of flip-flops -- "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" sashays in the footsteps of an avalanche of musicals adapted from films and sporting jukebox scores, but in the case of "Priscilla," what you saw on screen is the story you get on stage. The 1994 movie, which included "The Adventures of ..." in the title, was written by Stephan Elliott, who adapted his screenplay with co-writer Allan Scott and scored it with many of the same disco-era songs that populated the film.
Punch lines and punches are a match from screen to stage, so if you saw the movie, you know what you are in for. The movie starred Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce and the future "Matrix" baddy and Lord of Rivendell, Hugo Weaving, as Sydney-based drag-queen performers who buy a bus for a journey through the Outback. The destination is ostensibly a casino gig, but there's a family matter to attend to as well: One of the trio has a wife, and a son he's never met.
The stage version is as tacky, wacky and crude as the film (the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has declared "Priscilla" a 13-and-older show), and the touring company at the Benedum boasts a group of well-cast pros. These musical theater performers have to act and sing and wear some outrageous wigs and outfits, sometimes in the highest of heels, or sometimes wear very little at all. Limber Wade McCollum as Tick is a veteran of regional shows making a standout tour debut. His second-act joyful outburst danced to a high-energy "MacArthur Park," of all things, is a highlight. Tick's the one with the secret waiting at the group's destination, and he enlists "class and crass" fellow drag performers for a little company. As aging and newly widowed drag queen Bernadette, Scott Willis balances '50s-style elegance and strength born of years of being challenged for who she chooses to be, while brash, Madonna-loving Adam is played by the Broadway company's Bryan West, who ably represents impulsive, uninhibited youth.
Adam purchases a dinosaur of a bus and christens it "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," and off they go. The bus becomes a fourth character onstage, with a cutout on one side to reveal the antics within and a tendency to break down in the middle of nowhere. When it does work, Priscilla carries the trio from adventure to adventure and places where not everyone is accepting of guys dressed in outfits that would be over the top in a Vegas revue. They encounter friends including Bob, a mechanic who is smitten with Bernadette, and foes; they return to Priscilla to find an obscene hate message on the side of the bus. That's resolved by "painting" the bus pink, which leads to the vehicle serving as a canvas for light displays and projections.
Among the glittering stars of the production are costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won Oscars and then Tonys for outfitting both versions of "Priscilla."
The gazillion outfit and makeup changes in the stage version -- some at a gasp-worthy pace -- still allow for scenes with lots of male skin. There are enough six packs on display to rival a beer distributorship. But oh, those costumes! The drag queens on parade aren't rolling in dough, so their many outfits have to seem at least somewhat DIY, and their taste is along the lines of, there's no such thing as too much. Bette Midler was a producer of the Broadway production, and the colorful, sparkly aesthetic put me in mind of a vintage live show by the Divine Miss M -- the "Clams on a Half Shell Revue," for instance. That's especially true of the wild outfits worn by a chorus of three divas (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West) who hover above the action to help in the belting of familiar songs such as "It's Raining Men," "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Hot Stuff."
Australian accents are hit or miss and at times make it hard to discern what's being said. Right from the beginning, a queen known as Miss Understanding (Nik Alexzander) is hard to understand, but her Tina Turner impersonation is a hoot. The ensemble, a dozen plus the divas, moves nimbly between a host of dance genres choreographed by Ross Coleman, with movement and costumes often intertwined.
In the movie, songs were lip-synched to original recordings. Here, a nine-piece band provides most of the music and the idea of drag queens who lip synch is parodied in clever ways, including a lovely Bernadette flashback that plays out to "A Fine Romance." Themes of camaraderie, loyalty and acceptance abound as Priscilla has fits and starts on the way to a big finish. With all of the energy emanating from the stage, the one song from the era that's missing is "She Works Hard for the Money."
First Published March 6, 2013 11:44 am