A towering, phallic tube of pink lipstick rising from the stage of Shea’s Performing Arts Center attracted plenty of quizzical glances from theatergoers shuffling to their seats before the opening of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” on Tuesday night.
It was only the first sign that this touring production, a sequin-spangled, glitter-caked, wigged-out adaptation of the 1994 cult Australian film would venture into unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable territory for Shea’s reputedly conservative season ticket holders.
That supposed reputation, broadcast to the nation last year by Shea’s President and CEO Anthony Conte in a New York Times article by Patrick Healy, has always seemed to me a little bit exaggerated. And judging by the audience’s absolute rapture at the spectacle-heavy, dance-driven drag extravaganza that is “Priscilla,” their stunned silence at an anti-gay slur repeated in the show and their uncommonly spring-loaded standing ovation at the end, it seems clear enough to me that this much-ballyhooed conservatism is a fading fiction. (And may it finally die a true death in June, when Shea’s hosts the gloriously offensive “Book of Mormon,” which remains the hottest ticket on Broadway.)
As for “Priscilla,” this stage adaptation is successful in replicating the patent absurdity, unlikely emotional weight and footlong eyelashes of the film in all its consciously preachy glory. That’s surely attributable to the involvement of co-writer Stephan Elliott, who also wrote and directed the film, along with Allan Scott. And also because it employed the incalculable talents of the film’s costume designers, Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. The more than 500 camptastic outfits they have created – dresses cobbled together from found flip-flops or made to resemble frosted cupcakes to towering, and Technicolor wigs of every imaginable shape – have been promoted ad nauseam as the key reason to see the show.
And though all the crazed couture is indeed drool-inducing for any fan of the drag arts, the true colors of this musical lie in its good-hearted book and in the powerhouse performances of its three central cast members.
The show tells the story of three friends who set out in a rickety bus nicknamed Priscilla to cross the Australian Outback on their way to a gig at a casino. It starts when drag performer Tick (Wade McCollum) gets a call from his wife inviting him to perform on the other side of the continent and, incidentally, to meet with the young son he has never seen (played on opening night by Shane Davis, who trades off in the role with Will B.). Tick enlists the help of Bernadette (Scott Willis), a pioneering drag star and transsexual, and the young, impetuous and Madonna-obsessed Adam (Bryan West), and they join him on the journey.
Along the way, they encounter a series of rough-and-tumble rural characters whose notions of acceptable human behavior date from the Paleolithic age.
The messages of the show – about acceptance, about self-expression, about finding love – find their voice in over-the-top productions of various drag favorites, from “Material Girl” to “I Will Survive.” If some of the songs seem only obliquely related to the story or to those messages, anyone who’s ever been to a drag show will know that even the thinnest storyline will do.
The organizers of this tour have struck gold, casting-wise. As Tick, who goes by Mitzi in drag, McCollum’s sweetness, enthusiasm and nervousness about meeting his son are all credible. And his performance of “MacArthur Park,” prompted by Bernadette’s having left an actual cake out in the actual rain, is a boisterous and uninhibited few minutes of senseless joy that is one of the highlights of the show.
Willis, as the cool, collected Bernadette, gets most of the best lines – “Listen here, you mullet,” he says to one particularly cantankerous local, before going on to pronounce an unprintable insult – and delivers them with just the right combination of venom and good humor. His recitation of an old drag performer’s ode to her art – “the straining of the neck, the vibrato of the Adam’s apple, the quivering of the bottom lip” – is lovely. As is his performance of “A Fine Romance.”
Fine performances also come from the show’s trio of backup singers, who often float down like sassy, extraterrestrial jellyfish from the rafters to deliver spot-on R&B harmonies in ever-more elaborate costumes. The Divas, as they are known, are Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West. They’re joined by a extraordinary ensemble, many of whom seem to have been chosen as much for their triple-threat talents as their anatomical gifts.
For a few theatergoers, the subject matter of “Priscilla” might seem for the first three seconds or so to be somewhat unorthodox. But if you’re anything like the supposedly “conservative” audience at Shea’s on Tuesday night that could not contain its enthusiasm at every last lip-synced word, you’ll hardly even begin to care.