Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Move over Cleopatra, there is another desert queen capturing hearts and imaginations. She’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the outrageous musical about three drag queens traveling the Australian Outback in search of new adventures and new lives.
The Key Bank Broadway Series production at PlayhouseSquare’s State Theatre in Cleveland was adapted from the 1994 Academy Award-winning film The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and received a 2011 Tony Award for Best Costume Design for a Musical.
The sparkling glitter bomb of a musical with book by Australian film director-writer Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, opened with three “divas” in sequined gowns and tall wigs suspended over a shining bridge and the theater’s stage singing “It’s Raining Men” as the men of the Cockatoo Club, a fictitious Sydney nightclub took to the stage amid the glitz and glare of Brian Thompson’s shimmering set design for the two-act musical.
It is there we meet Tick (a.k.a Mitzi), a down on his luck drag queen played by Wade McCollum whose showbiz act, a campy song and dance puppet show, is as worn and tired as he reveals his life has gotten to be.
Also among the club’s performers is “Miss Understanding”, a Tina Turner impersonator deliciously portrayed by Nik Alexander who comically mimicked Turner’s stage mannerisms belting out a rendition of her hit “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”
Ridiculed by his fellow performers at the club, Tick accepts an offer from his wife Marion, whom he is separated from, to perform at her western Australian casino. The offer also affords Tick a chance for to reunite with his young son Benji who he barely knows.
McCollum as the haplessly likable Tick had an ease about his portrayal of the character and his performance of the song “I Say a Little Prayer” thinking of Benji, endeared Tick to the audience.
“I Say a Little Prayer”, as with most of the over 20 popular music hits in Priscilla was repurposed so that it’s lyrics and vocal delivery were used in character development and to advance the musical’s storyline.
Later in first act Tick enlists the aid of friends Bernadette, an aging transsexual and Adam (a.k.a Felicia), a young free-spirited drag queen to help him put together a new act for the casino. Together they board a used bus Adam has purchased and dubbed “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” (hence the musical’s title) and embark on a journey of hope and self discovery.
The generational dynamic between the world-weary Bernadette (Scott Willis), who recently buried her partner, and the uber energetic Adam (Bryan West) is at times hilariously bitchy and at others motherly.
One-liners litter each character’s dialogue with Bernadette getting the lion’s share of the best ones such as when Adam tells his compatriots his dream to sing Madonna tunes in drag on an Outback landmark near Alice Springs where the trio is headed, Bernadette responds “Just what this country needs a cock on a rock in a frock”.
Willis’ performance as Bernadette is a gem. With an adroit mix of comedic timing, emotional vulnerability and a fits-like-a-glove believably in the role, Willis stole the show.
West as Adam/Felicia was sharp as well delivering his own biting quips such as when Tick revealed he was married to a woman, Adam made a crack about Hers and Hers bath mats.
The remainder of the trio’s journey in the first act has them visiting a cowboy bar in full drag queen regalia, Felicia riding atop the bus in a giant bedazzled shoe lip sinking to “Follie! Delirio vano e questo!… Sempre libera” from Verdi’s opera La Traviata, having their bus vandalized with homophobic graffiti leading to them painting it pink and a swirling production number to “Colour My World” with dancers costumed as giant paint brushes, and encountering aborigine Jimmy (Taurean Everett) who dressed the part only to run his tourist business and Bob (Joe Hart), a mechanic come to fix the bus after it broke down.
In Act II the gals accompany Bob to a bar where a group of rednecks belt out John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”. Here Bernadette, who is searching for one last chance at love, in conversation with Bob learns he has seen her in her younger years in Paris as part of the “Les Girls” drag show and feelings between the two intensify.
It is also here we meet Bob’s wife Cynthia (Chelsea Zeno) an Asian former strip club performer who during a rendition of M’s 1980’s hit “Pop Muzik”, shoots ping pong balls out from her nether region while flirting with the bars male clientele. The bit was one of the many clever sight gags in the musical and Zeno was great as Cynthia, one of several roles she played in the production.
The bulk of the talented cast also wore many different costumes in Priscilla including standout performer Babs Rubenstein who shone as a rough-and-tumble bar owner and a lonely lesbian.
Later in Coober Pedy, a town Bernadette described as “the entry point if you were giving the world an enema”, Adam decides to go out as Felicia to meet men and nearly gets himself killed by a group of narrow-minded ruffians. Bernadette saves the day and in one of the production’s most poignant scenes she comforts Adam who lets his guard down about his feelings at being abandoned by his father as a child and his desire to be accepted and loved for who he is.
After an indulgently contrived production number to the song “MacArthur Park” featuring Tick and a chorus of dancing cupcakes, the troupe finally arrived in Alice Springs where the trio performed, Tick reunited with his wife and met his son Benji, Felicia realized her dream of performing Madonna songs on “Paradise Rock”, and the gals found new hope and direction in their lives.
Overall, Priscilla Queen of the Desert was a hoot. Dense with glitz, glam and a bevy of confectionery colored costumes by designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner – some of which appeared to be raided from the wardrobe closets of 1970’s bands The Village People and Parliament Funkadelic – the production had everything a hit musical needs: great music, memorable characters portrayed by an amazing cast and plenty of humor and heart.