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Chicago by John Olson

Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Auditorium Theatre

Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Wade McCollum, Scott Willis and Bryan West
Certainly, to transform the 1994 Australian film into a stage musical capable of playing in a large Broadway theater like the Palace and the mammoth houses on the road, the intimate story of three drag queens driving a bus across the Outback was going to have to be made a lot bigger. And what better to fill those big stages and play to the balcony than a display of drag costumes as creative, fanciful and colorful as just about anything seen on the legitimate stage? No argument on either of those points—a stage musical is a different animal from a movie musical and transfers from film to stage can be just as tricky as the reverse (which used to be the more common direction for musicals).

In re-creating his screenplay for the stage, film director/screenwriter Stephan Elliott (together with co-bookwriter Allan Scott) hasn't lost his story of three male drag performers on a journey of self-discovery—the key scenes are all there and are quite capably played—but they sure are overpowered by the production numbers. For a story which on screen was much of the time just the three men in the bus named Priscilla, driving across Australian desert terrain without a soul in sight for miles, they sure are visited by a lot of chorus boys coming from nowhere. No, I'm not asking the creators to be excessively literal—of course these drag queens would create big production numbers in their minds. It's just that the production numbers frequently are disruptive to the quieter moments of the text in which we're learning and caring about the characters. Tick (Mitzi) is planning to meet his six-year-old son for the first time and is slowly embracing the idea of fatherhood, the transsexual Bernadette is grieving the death of her young husband, and Adam (Felicia) comes to realize that life is not entirely a cabaret, old chum. As fun and inventive as the costumes are, do we really need a kick line of paintbrushes as the drag queens paint over the hateful homophobic graffiti placed on Priscilla by the denizens of an Outback town?

The abundance of costumes and dancing suggest the producers and creative team were deathly afraid of not giving the audience its money's worth. Well, they do—and more. Though the set by Brian Thomson is minimal—basically just the bus (cutout on one side and rotating as the scene requires) and some glittery curtains—the costumes by Tim Chappell and Lizzy Gardner are awe-inspiring. This is the duo who designed the Oscar-winning costumes for the film, and they outdo themselves several times over here. There are even new costumes introduced for the curtain call in case they think we haven't seen enough! And, lest the old joke about audiences not leaving a musical humming the costumes (or the scenery) be recalled, these costumes are used in the services of some delightfully fun tunes presumably all known by heart by this show's target audience of middle-aged women and gay men. The ABBA songs of the film are not to be found here, but there's enough Madonna, Village People and Cyndi Lauper to more than fill that void. The numbers are performed with consummate skill and panache by the Equity cast, many of whom display chiseled torsos sure to appeal to both segments of the aforementioned target audience. It's a good time, for sure, though the numbers, all at the same energy level and feel-good upbeatness, started to lose their magic toward about fifteen minutes before the end of the show's perfectly normal length of two and a half hours.

What keeps Priscilla from being no more than a very good Las Vegas revue are the book scenes, even as overpowered as they are by the production numbers. Wade McCollum is the standout of the three leads, playing Tick/Mitzi with a sweet vulnerability that's absolutely convincing. Scott Willis gives Bernadette the both the tenderness and toughness we remember from Terrance Stamp's performance in the film (though Stamp's subtlety would be hard to put over in the mammoth Auditorium Theatre). Bryan West is a sexy and silly Adam/Felicia and delivers his solos with style. His moments of vulnerability, though, including his near rape at the hands of the roughnecks in the town of Coober Pedy, aren't treated by director Simon Philips with anywhere near the gravity of the film. There's also a nice performance by Joe Hart as Bob, including his strong rendition of "A Fine Romance."

In spite of these solid performances by the principals, every time we start to get too involved, those chorus boys and girls start flying in from somewhere for another big number. Apparently the masterminds of this production didn't believe that less is more. They may all just be trying a bit too hard for a hit. I think they would have been better off—and probably have had more commercial success—if they had just trusted their material and given audiences more of a chance to bond with Tick, Bernadette and Adam. They could have gotten rid of a few production numbers (the act two opener "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," for one) and given just a bit more time with the girls. Here's a prediction: Someday London's Menier Chocolate Factory will rediscover this piece and stage it intimately, like their La Cage aux Folles, and it will be rediscovered and re-evaluated as a deeper, more touching piece. In the meantime, if "girls just wanna have fun," they'll find it here.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert will play the Auditorium Theatre through March 30, 2013. For tickets, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com by phone at 800-775-2000 or at Broadway in Chicago box offices. For more information on the tour, please visit www.priscillathemusical.com.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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