A Razzle Dazzle Production of
Aussie drag queens wearing terrific, outlandish costumes, with ostrich heads and Marie Antoinette wigs loaded onto the bus, have arrived in San Francisco. This fast-paced musical is a kind of down-under Mamma Mia! with a series of really great frocks and classic pop songs.
Priscilla is based on the 1994 Australian hit movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and it is a glimpse into the bleak lives of three pugnacious drag performers (actually, two drag queens and a sweet transsexual) in Sydney, Australia, taking a low-rent gig deep in the outback.
Aging drag performer Tick (Wade McCollum) is a successful Sydney queen with a secretan eight year-old son he's never met. Tick's ex (Christy Faber) offers him a gig at her casino in the outback and a chance to spend time with young Benji (Shane Davis). He drags along old school showgirl Bernadette (Scott Wells), a transsexual former-headlining lip-synch artist from the classier days of gestural refinement, and irrepressible Madonna-admiring youth Felicia (Bryan West) in a rundown bus dubbed Priscilla. They encounter rednecks, breakdowns and honkytonk bars along the ride through the Australian outback. Bernadette also encounters love in a most unexpected place.
Priscilla's opening is absolutely wild with three Divas (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, Brit West) dangling in midair and belting out "It's Raining Men" as the goofily engaging Tick, the puckish Adam, and Bernadette, who is mourning the death of her lover, lip-sync in drag beneath them.
Elliot and Allan's book has a sparkling wit, and the production numbers such as "I Will Survive," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" with the audience joining in to open the second act, and "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" are spectacular and worthy of a Las Vegas show. They're like Beach Blanket Babylon songs on steroids. The dancers/singers perform these terrific numbers with verve and infusions of bawdy humor.
The songs are jukebox oldies, mostly of the 1980s club days, from Madonna to Diana Ross and even, most ludicrously, Jimmy Webb. These songs will get your body moving to the fervent disco beat, especially "I Will Survive." One of the best production numbers by far is Bernadette's flashback of a classic Les Girls revue of the 1960s featuring a young version of Bernadette in full follies fashion doing the immortal Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields "A Fine Romance."
You just can't forget the costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won an Oscar for their designs in the movie and a Tony Award for the Broadway production. Here, they outdo themselves with the sheer volume and extravagant fantasy. There are towering wigs, elegant gowns, and outfits made of flip-flops. It is well worth the price of admission just to see these massive creations displayed. Even Priscilla's "costume" of flickering colored lights is a constant source of surprise and delight.
The actors, some seasoned veterans, know how to hold the audience and communicate the essential passionate information with broad clarity. The rewarding role belongs to Scott Wells, who gives a faithful note of grace to his performance as Bernadette. Wade McCollum gives a heartfelt performance as a dad wanting to spend time with his son. In drag he sometimes looks like a Cirque du Soleil clown with an unconventional physical performance that has the advantage of presenting not just the masculine and feminine but also the performer and the fearful man who feels like he is failure. Bryan West gives a warm and honest portrayal of the puckish Adam. He offers the richest vocals of the three. Chelsea Zeno brings down the house as a mail order bride in the production number "Pop Muzik" with ping pong balls being shot out into the audience from between her legs. Joe Hart, who has a truly theatrical voice, is excellent playing Bernadette's love interest.
At the performance I attended, the lyrics were indistinct, a common problem with hurried amplified shows at this acoustically perfect venue. However, no one probably needs to hear every consonant as most are familiar pop songs.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a rollicking, sassy, upbeat musical that will make you feel young again (at least it did this oldster). The boisterous musical plays at the Orpheum Theatre through August 31st. Coming up next for SHN is the pre-Broadway run of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical opening at the Curran Theatre on September 24 and running through October 20th.