REVIEW: 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert'

Boys won’t always be boys

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Boy, oh boy, oh … men. Dressed like women, acting like women, singing and dancing like women. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which opened Tuesday at the Community Center Theater, is one fearsome display of … something.

Adapted from the 1994 movie about three Australian female impersonators on a road trip through the outback, Priscilla is a drag show that rarely drags. It’s hyperactive, hyper colorful, bawdy and gaudy. To quote one of the Cyndi Lauper songs featured in the musical, this play and its girls mostly just want to have fun.

A Sydney drag queen, Tick, a.k.a. Mitzi (Wade McCollum, impressive as either gender), is called by his wife Marion (Christy Faber) to come back to the sticks where he left her (a town called Alice Springs) and meet the son (an assured Shane Davis) he has never known. Marion runs a casino and cajoles and threatens Tick into putting on a show. He recruits two friends—also drag performers—to get on the bus, the fabulous Priscilla of the title, and join the trip, keeping them in the dark about his true mission. Bernadette (Scott Willis, totally convincing as a transsexual) is an older veteran of the drag scene who recently lost her young lover, while Adam, a.k.a. Felicia Verygoodfellow (Bryan West, direct from the show’s Broadway run) is a hot-to-hookup stereotype of a young gay man.

Here, and in scenes of outright raunchiness (Cynthia, played by Chelsea Zeno, for example, is an entertainer whose chief “talent” is firing Ping-Pong balls from her various orifices), Priscilla loses that loving feeling it tries so hard to instill. Writers Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott (adapting Elliott’s original screenplay) sometimes undercut their theme of tolerance and their celebration of friendship and acceptance. 

What the play does best is celebrate the dance-floor music of the disco era: “It’s Raining Men,” “I Will Survive,” “Holiday,” “Like a Virgin” and, of course, “I Love the Nightlife,” all performed with gusto. There are a few musical surprises, too, including “A Fine Romance” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

Bob (Joe Hart in the only main role in which a man plays a man consistently) joins the trek as Priscilla’s mechanic and the object of Bernadette’s affection. The hard-working ensemble ably performs as everything from dishy drag performers to vicious outback rednecks. The divas (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West) drop down from above with often heavenly harmonies and Miss Understanding (Nik Alexzander) takes a turn as Tina on the hilariously quivery “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

Of course, the sets (by Brian Thomson) and the costumes (Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner) are incredible. The over-the-top dance outfits are riotously colorful, and the bus, the center of much of the action, is both wonderfully tacky and utilitarian.

Opening night, the orchestra was sharp, but the dialogue sometimes was muddy.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; $21-$88. Community Center Theater, 1301 L Street; (916) 808-5181; Through November 10. 

-Jim Carnes

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