The rainbow-colored bus known around the world as Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert has just pulled into the Costa Mesa station (make that Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts), and as anyone who’s seen Stephen Elliott’s 1994 cult hit movie of the same name can tell you, that’s just about the most fabulous news any OC resident or neighbor to the north could possibly ask for this week.

6114_489248247780152_1778117915_n Like its sister musical La Cage Aux Folles, Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert features drag queens galore, i.e. you might just need to don sunglasses whenever these men in sequins and silk strut their high-wattage Technicolor stuff, though this time it’s not Jerry Herman show tunes but two-dozen disco-era smashes that provide Priscilla’s sing-along, dance-along soundtrack, ‘70s faves like “I Love The Nightlife,” “I Will Survive,” “Shake Your Groove Thing,” “Hot Stuff,” and “Boogie Wonderland.”

Also, just as La Cage proved an unexpected celebration of family, Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert’s three unlikely Australian hero(in)es turn out to be sisters not just in drag but ultimately of the heart.

1192_489763067728670_731182936_n The glamorous threesome consists of transsexual Bernadette (Scott Willis), in mourning for her recently deceased husband; pretty boy Adam (Bryan West), whose drag persona Felicia may well be Adam’s way of surviving being “different”; and Tick/Mitsi (Wade McCollum), who’s brought the trio together in response to a phone call from Marion (Christy Faber), a nightclub owner in far-away Alice Springs who just happens to be his gone-but-not-forgotten wife.

31934_516309765074000_763253274_n Marion’s club is, it seems, in need of a fill-in act, and who better to provide one than a man who looks sensational in stiletto heels and mile-high hair and who can lip-sync with the best?

It’s more than just loyalty, however, that makes Tick agree to put together an act for Marion. Tick’s got an eight-year-old son named Benji (Shane Davis and Will B. alternating) whom he hasn’t seen since leaving for the big city, and both Marion and Benji feel it’s time for a father-and-son reunion.

And so these three intrepid queens of drag set off across the Australian desert in the “budget Barbie campervan” they’ve dubbed “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Needless to say, multiple adventures ensue.

563435_510645348973775_1636767194_n Among the folk they meet along the way are small town mechanic Bob (Joe Hart), who takes a fancy to Bernadette; Bob’s much younger “performance artist” mail-order bride Cynthia (Chelsea Zeno), whose unique way of “popping” ping-pong balls gives new meaning to the ‘70s hit “Pop Muzik”; a sexy aborigine tour guide named Jimmy (Taureen Everett); Shirley (Babs Rubenstein), a butch bruiser of a barmaid who could teach our trio of leads a lesson in macho; Miss Understanding (Nik Alexander), a sassy black drag queen whose “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is like Tina Turner on acid; Frank (David Koch), who gives Felicia a not-so-nice welcome to the Outback; Young Bernadette (Travis Taber, who also plays Farrah), our elegant leading lady in youthful, pre-op mode; and an acrophobia-free trio of divas (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, and Brit West) whose multiple appearances in Dreamgirls mode give new meaning to the “Strangers In Paradise” lyric, “I hang suspended” (courtesy of Flying By Foy).

196814_489763051062005_1305197713_n Priscilla The Movie’s director-writer Elliott and his Priscilla The Musical co-book writer Allan Scott have wisely stuck close to the flick’s proven plot while finding ways to turn song hits that underscored dialog sequences in the film into plot-propelling musical theater songs. Like the movie that inspired it, Priscilla The Musical doesn’t shy away from the desert trek’s darker moments. Homophobia rears its ugly head on more than one occasion even as our fearless trio encounter love and acceptance from the most unlikely of quarters.

David Hyslop takes over for original New York director Simon Phillips with consummate imagination and flair, Joshua Buscher recreates Ross Coleman’s razzmatazz original choreography, giving our three stars and a stageful of drag queens plenty of pizzazzy dance moves to execute.

59889_489762971062013_2039496880_n Brian Thomson’s scenic design provides as glittery a backdrop as one could possibly imagine or desire, especially when the show’s fabulously appointed centerpiece (none other than Priscilla herself) takes centerstage. Nick Schlieper and Jonathan Spencer’s lighting couldn’t be more excitingly flashy. Jonathan Deans and Peter Fitzgerald’s high-decibel sound design is as disco-ready as they come.

72208_489763304395313_2096654588_n Still, what audiences will probably remember most about Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert are Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s dazzling array of costumes—and as anyone who’s seen the duo’s original Oscar-winning designs for Priscilla The Movie can well imagine, Chappel and Gardiner’s Tony-winning Priscilla The Musical gowns and wigs are in a class by themselves. Take a gander at any production still and you’ll see why it would take this reviewer a thousand words to do each of Priscilla’s supremely original costumes justice. (Kudos are also in order for Cassie Hanlon’s glitzy makeup design—and for the ingenious way she gets our drag queens in and out of eye-makeup in a snap.)

And then there are the performances, each more memorable than the next, with special snaps for McCollum’s angry, proud, vulnerable, tender, and loving Tick; Willis’ thoroughly marvelous Bernadette, gender-bending perfection and the very definition of a lady; West’s fan-f-ing-tabulous Adam/Felicia, sass and sex-appeal in equally ample measure; and Musical Theatre Guild treasure Hart, who gives new meaning to the word gentleman, even way out in the Australian Outback.

945242_539456886092621_439247946_n Supporting turns by Afton, Alexander, Everett, Koch, Jackson, Rubenstein, Taber, West, and Zeno are equally finely rendered, with ensemble members Andrew Chappelle, Alex DeLeo, Chris Klink, Neal Mayer, and Alex Ringler about as triple-threat-tastic (and hunky/glamorous as they come). Swings Amy Hillner Larsen (assistant dance captain) and Ralph Meitzler (dance captain, fight captain) are poised to assume ensemble tracks and featured roles at a moment’s notice.

Music director Brent Frederick plays keys in Priscilla’s dance club-ready backup band, orchestrations by Stephen “Spud” Murphy and Charlie Hull, with Murphy also earning star billing for his music supervision and arrangements.

Tom Bartlett is production stage manager, Chad Lewis stage manager, and Ryan J. Bell assistant stage manager.

I went into Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert with a certain trepidation, not because I had any fear that the show wouldn’t dazzle and delight, but because I couldn’t help wondering whether conservative Orange County would welcome a slew of gay men in drag as warmly and acceptingly as had Sydney, London, New York, and Hollywood.

I needn’t have fretted. Curtain calls had the entire audience to its feet, cheering as loudly as I’ve heard a Segerstrom Center crowd cheer and proving that the times are indeed a-changin’.

Simply put (and feel free to quote me on this), Her Majesty Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert reigns supreme.

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
October 22, 2013
Photos: Joan Marcus

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.