When the national tour of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” sashays into Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night for a six-day stop, keep an eye out for Jayme Coxx and her friends in the front row. They’ll be hard to miss.
“I believe we’re going in drag,” said Coxx, director of the Thursday night drag shows at Club Marcella, next door to Shea’s on Main Street. “So we’re gonna scare a lot of the straight people.”
On a recent Thursday night, Coxx was in the basement of Club Marcella, sitting in the cramped dressing room that she shares with fellow drag queen Robotica and an oversized water heater. Kelly Clarkson played on the stereo. With a bare torso, hair pulled back with a headband and face unshaven, Coxx (boy name: Kevin VanWagner) put off preparing for the evening’s trio of shows to explain the unbridled excitement she and her fellow queens were feeling at the prospect of seeing the stage version of one of drag culture’s most beloved films.
“It’s one of my favorite movies of all-time,” said Coxx, who was surrounded by racks of multicolored sunglasses, homemade jewelry and several pairs of sparkly heels. “I’ve been that person stalking YouTube, watching the clips that they have from actual shows [on the tour], and I’m like, oh my God, I need to see those costumes.”
The 1994 Australian film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” directed by Stephan Elliott and starring Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp and an ever-growing collection of bizarre dresses and headpieces, follows two drag queens and a male-to-female transsexual on a trip across the Outback in a bus they’ve lovingly nicknamed “Priscilla.” Along the way, the trio prompts plenty of double takes from confused locals, puts on some impromptu performances and ultimately moves their country a few hard-won centimeters forward in its acceptance of the drag lifestyle.
The many-splendored stage adaptation, which began in Sydney in 2006, went to London and made its way to Broadway in 2011 via an out-of-town tryout in Toronto the previous year. A costume-driven musical, it could help speed the evaporation of some stubborn puddles of bigotry and intolerance.
The show is all about spectacle, and dance numbers set to classics like “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I Will Survive,” “Shake Your Groove Thing” and others are more or less designed to show off its 500 or so costumes, designed by Academy Award- and Tony-winning designers Tim Chappel and Lizzie Gardiner.
For many of the performers at Club Marcella, some of whom performed during the announcement of Shea’s 2012-13 season last March, “Priscilla” is more than just a movie. It is an indispensable piece of drag culture and a kind of guiding light that local performers, from the late beloved Viki Vogue to her protege Vanity Vogue, revisit again and again for inspiration.
For Bebe Bvlgari, a musical theater actor who has been doing drag at Marcella for the past five years, the story’s message of acceptance hit home.
“It’s a great time to bring it back, because this will give a different perspective to drag,” said Bvlgari (boy name: Michael Blasdell), who as he spoke was furiously brushing foundation onto his face at a row of mirrors, along with three other performers. The strength of the characters in the film, she said, had given her more confidence. “Walking down the street when I have a gig at another bar, I’m not afraid to leave my house in drag.”
And as for those costumes?
As Bvlgari gestured over to fellow drag queen Fantasia Thunderpussy three seats down – getting her wig situated for a performance of Whitney Houston’s “Love Will Save the Day” – she said: “We’re going to be sitting there front-row center, clocking every stitch, every hem, so we can get ideas and make our own costumes.”
Nearly every aspect of the Marcella performers’ acts and personas is self-made. Fantasia, for instance, painstakingly creates her own handmade jewelry, partially inspired by “Priscilla.” She showed off a glittering pair of massive earrings, which she then actually glued to her ears before the performance so they didn’t weigh down her earlobes. Her favorite costume from the film, she said, was the one cobbled together out of flip-flops by Terence Stamp’s character. “Someday,” she said, looking a little bit wistful. “Someday …”
Tossing on some makeup, a massive wig and a ridiculous costume is – strange as it may sound – a radical political act for the characters in “Priscilla,” as it is for any drag queen.
“I think the idea of them driving across country on this big tour bus and being able to be as gay and open as they want to is what everyone in the gay world is still hunting and trying for,” Coxx said. “In drag, you’re able to be someone that you’re not and you’re able to live the life that you’re creating for yourself. They were able to go cross-country as [people] that they wanted to be, not the sheltered, battered person that they were back home.”
For the actors in “Priscilla,” many of whom had no previous experience with drag, the show presented plenty of challenges.
Costume director Michelle Harrison, who is responsible for wrangling the show’s 500 or so over-the-top outfits, described the process the cast underwent while the show was in rehearsals.
“We had a lot of grown men that had never worn makeup before, they had never worn eyelashes before, they had never danced in or even worn heels before,” she said in a phone interview from Springfield, Mo. “They have to learn how to walk in heels, they have to learn how to put on makeup, they have to learn how to put on a bra, they have to learn how to take a bra off another human being. It’s all of these things that you didn’t think you would ever have to learn about.”
Drag newbie Scott Willis, who plays the transsexual Bernadette, was slightly daunted by the prospect of getting his makeup perfect every day, but gradually came to accept the challenge. Dancing across the stage in Bernadette’s 3-inch heels, after all, isn’t nearly as much of a costume challenge as his other gig: playing Santa Claus in the touring version of the Rockettes’ “Radio City Christmas Spectacular.”
“I actually have more padding and more hair playing Santa Claus than I have as Bernadette, so it’s much more comfortable to be Bernadette than it is to be Santa Claus,” Willis said during a tour stop in St. Louis. Willis’ audition experience, at an open call that attracted about 100 experienced New York City-based drag performers, opened his eyes to a side of drag he had never seen before.
“Being in a room with 100 drag queens, and seeing how they were friendly to one another, complimenting one another, complimenting me when I had absolutely no experience and I was keeping my mouth shut and just trying to concentrate on the lyrics to my song and painting my fingernails,” he said, “to see the real honesty and friendship and humor was really eye-opening, and it raised my level of appreciation much higher than it had maybe ever been.”
Harrison, along with performers from Club Marcella and across the local drag community who will be scattered throughout the crowd at Shea’s on opening night, hopes that “Priscilla” will have the same effect on theatergoers.
“There is still a lot of the public that doesn’t understand drag queens. They don’t understand that whole culture, and it’s very foreign to them,” she said. “Once people get there, they’ll start listening to what’s actually happening and listening to the story. And hopefully they’ll walk away with a little bit better understanding, they’ll have a little more respect for a different way of life.”
“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”: opens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and runs through next Sunday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are $32.50 to $67.50. Find more information at 847-0850 or online at www.sheas.org.