Wednesday, January 16, 2013

PRISCILLA…costumes, dancing, rocking escapism @ State Theatre

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

There is an old expression in theatre evaluation:  “If you come out of a musical whistling costumes and sets, it’s not good!”  Well, generally, that’s the case, but with PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT THE MUSICAL, that idiom is not true.  

PRISCILLA isn’t intended to be a great message musical.  NEXT TO NORMAL or CHORUS LINE it isn’t.  What it is, is a show with 492 costumes, yes, close to 500 costumes, cast members singing from small platforms which drop in and out of the fly gallery, a cast of muscle bound guys (It’s Raining Men), a full sized bus which maneuvers around the stage on a turntable, and a rockin’ musical score which includes such gems as What’s Love Got to Do With It?, I Say a Little Prayer, True Colors, and I Will Survive.  Oh, incidentally, there is a slight story line which showcases the theme of acceptance and should satisfy those who want their theatrical experiences to be meaningful.

The production is so grand that it had to moved to the State Theatre because not all the costumes and sets could be accommodated at the smaller Palace Theatre facility, where it was originally scheduled to be staged.

The show, which is now touring the US, UK, Ireland, Italy and Brazil, has a book by Aussie’s Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, and uses well-known pop songs as its score.  The music was not written specifically for this show, but are a series of well known tunes covering everything from rock a billy, to pop rock, to opera. 

The musical is based on the 1994 cult hit movie, THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, and centers on two drag queens and a transsexual who travel from Sydney to Alice Springs, in the center of the Australian desert via a bus of many colors, dubbed Priscilla.  During the journey, the three meet up with a cast of outback characters who do everything from admire to threaten them.

Side-lesson:  drag queens are men who dress as women to entertain.  They are not necessarily homosexual, may even not want to be women, but dance, sing, lip sync, and dress in exaggerated female garb as their means of artistic expression.  

The musical opened in Australia in 2006, debuted in 2009 in London, winning costume design recognitions in the British Olivier Awards and won the Tony for Best Costumes in its 2011 Broadway run.

The touring production is a cacophony of  bright visuals and sounds.  It is nearly impossible to not bounce and sway to the loud pulsing music.  Though it’s often difficult to hear the words to the songs, over the stomping sounds, the songs are so familiar and the meaning of the words are generally unnecessary to push along the story line, that it matters little.  This is a heart beating, fun, fantasy, that requires little from the audience except allowing everything to carry you along.  Don’t let thinking get in your way.  Just relish the singers, dancers, toned abs, excellent musical arrangements, and over-the-top smorgasbord of treats.  

The touring cast is excellent.  In fact, having seen the show in London, I can attest to the fact that this production, in spite of some opening night technical problems, including backstage techies having to crawl out on stage and remove errant set pieces, works better in the hinterlands than it did in the West End.
The trio of leads, two drag queens (Tick and Adam) and Bernadette, a faded  former queen of drag, who has transgendered from male to female, take to a bus when Adam’s former wife invites him to come visit his now seven-year old son and perform at her casino in Alice Springs. 

Wade McCollum, who obviously spends most of his time at the gym, dances and sings well, making for a correctly flamboyant Tick.  Bryan West, as the most macho of the trio, sings well, but is a little less talented in the dancing department.  Scott Willis creates a properly frustrated yet gallant transgendered aging Bernadette.   The rest of the cast exhausts itself by putting out full effort in multi-roles.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT THE MUSICAL is a rocking enjoyable evening of theater that is mostly glitz, costumes and sets, encompassing famous songs and a slight story line. 
Tickets for PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT THE MUSICAL, which runs through January 27 at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to