Yes, it’s little more than a big budget drag show with just enough of the plot of the 1994 Australian film on which it’s based to keep it from floating away altogether. When Woody Allen, in an early stand-up routine, described himself as "thin, but fun," he could just as easily have been describing the book for this show. And, yes, the score consists entirely of pop songs from the 70s and 80s grafted on to that story a la “Mamma Mia”. But it’s so openly and cheerfully tacky and so stuffed with lavish, precisely executed dance numbers that only a dedicated curmudgeon could fail to smile at it.
The flimsy story goes like this. In Sydney, Australia, drag performer Anthony "Tick" Belrose, a.k.a. Mitzi Mitosis (Wade McCollum), gets a call from his wife Marion asking him to come out to distant Alice Springs, meet his son for the first time, and perform at her casino. He’s scared, but he agrees. For emotional support (and to add to the act) he asks his transsexual friend Bernadette (Scott Willis) to join him, along with young drag performer Felicia (Bryan West). Felicia buys an old school bus that they convert to a camper. They christen it “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” and they’re off on a marathon road trip through rural Australia.
They have their share of adventures on the way, and Bernadette picks up a lover—a mechanic named Bob (Joe Hart)—but it all doesn’t amount to much. Mostly it’s an excuse for a series of colorful production numbers featuring flashy, disco-inspired choreography by Ross Coleman (recreated for the tour by Joshua Buscher) and over 500 elaborate costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. There’s enough glitter, sequins, colored lights, and confetti cannons here to outfit a Studio 54 revival. Indeed, the story is so close to incidental that you’d almost be justified in regarding this a kind of throwback to the revue-oriented shows of a century ago, when everything would stop dead for a bit dance number.
That said, there’s no denying that the performances are all first-rate. Mr. McCollum makes Tick instantly likeable and believably vulnerable, and his dancing, like that of his fellow cast members, is impressive. Mr. Willis was so completely credible as the tranny Bernadette that I had to remind myself that his performance was pure illusion. And Mr. West’s over the top Felicia was a consistent source of fun. Well done, gentlemen.
Some of the most impressive work, though, came from Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, and Brit West as The Divas—a trio of singers who are in nearly every number and who largely set the musical tone for the show. More often than not they’re suspended above the stage in flying rigs, like a group of lubricious angels. No matter where they were, though, their harmonies were spot on and they had the soul/disco moves and attitudes down pat.
Nik Alexzander had a nice cameo as the bitchy Miss Understanding, with her essay writing service hilarious Tina Turner parody. There was nice work as well from Christy Faber as Tick’s understanding wife Marion, and from Mr. Hart as Bob. Everyone in the cast, in fact, did exceptional work.
Technically, the show is stunning, with elaborate lighting by Nick Schlieper and Jonathan Spencer and fluid direction from Simon Philips. The bus that acts as a centerpiece for most of the scenes is a pretty remarkable bit of tech all by itself. The outside is covered with LEDs that are used to change its color and even project moving images. The inside, revealed by the turntable on which it’s mounted, is a masterpiece of tacky décor—exactly what you’d expect these characters to have created. Brian Thompson gets credit for that and for the other colorful and silly aspects of the production design.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” will hinge on how much (or how little) tolerance you have for disco and the whole female impersonator entertainment genre that’s keeping it alive. If you hate disco or you think that transsexuals and gay men wearing dresses are signs of The End Times, you’ll want to give this show a miss. Ditto if you’re just looking for musical theatre with some substance.
If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood for some undemanding entertainment and you’re inclined to start dancing in your seat to the first notes of “It’s Raining Men”, then by all means get on board “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” Be advised, though, that the show is shot through with mildly raunchy sexual humor and the occasional “F bomb”, so you might want to leave the younger kids at home.
“Priscilla Queen of the Desert” runs through February 10 at the Fox Theatre. For more information: fabulousfox.com.