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On stage, costumes are king in ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’

With their flaring trousers ascending headpieces these costumes from stage musical “PriscillQueen Desert: The Musical” became known as “Gumby” dresses

With their flaring trousers and ascending headpieces, these costumes from the stage musical “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical” became known as the “Gumby” dresses for their resemblance to the children’s TV character. | Photo by Joan Marcus

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◆ Tuesday through March 30

◆ Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress

◆ Tickets, $28-$85

◆ (800) 775-2000;

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Updated: April 18, 2013 6:06AM

When the show “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical” rolls into town on Tuesday, it will do so with a wardrobe befitting a queen.

The show, running through March 30 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, features more than 500 costumes. The 53-foot long semi-trailer which transports and stores the frocks is enough to give any fashionista a serious case of closet envy.

“The costumes in this show are out of control,” says Michelle Harrison, costume director for Troika Entertainment, the company responsible for handling wardrobe and costumes for the tour. “We are definitely up there with ‘Wicked’ and ‘The Lion King’ in terms of the number of the costumes.”

Fans of the 1994 film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (on which the musical is based) would expect nothing less.

“The costuming is one of the things that made the film so much fun to watch,” Harrison says. “The musical has to have that same level of costuming. People are expecting it.”

Both film and stage musical tell the story of a trio of drag queen performers who hop on a bus christened “Priscilla” and drive across the Australian Outback. Like the film, the musical features elaborate costumes designed by Tim Chappel and Lizzie Gardiner. The pair won both a 1995 Academy Award and a 2011 Tony Award for their costume design work on “Priscilla.”

Iconic film frocks such as the dress made out of brightly colored flip-flop sandals, “Gumby” dresses (so named because they resemble a certain Claymation character) and those resembling lizards (as seen in the film’s finale) are all faithfully re-created. Harrison says Chappel and Gardiner knew they couldn’t just reproduce the costumes from the film, though. The musical was a chance to go more over-the-top.

“The costumes really are their own character in the musical,” Harrison says.

Christy Faber, who plays Marion (the mom) in the show, graduated from New Trier High School in north suburban Winnetka and says nothing could have prepared her for this show.

“New Trier has such a wonderful theater and musical program. I had so many opportunities while I was there and appeared in several productions every year,” she says. “My junior year we did ‘My One and Only,’ and I wore a dress from the Broadway production, and while that show had one over-the-top scene, ‘Priscilla’ is all over-the-top.”

In addition to playing the relatively straitlaced, jeans-wearing mom, Faber also appears in many of the show’s ensemble numbers.

“I have a total of nine costume changes; two of them are very quick,” she says.

And what would a queen be without her King?

“The Elvis costume I get to wear is my favorite,” Faber says. “It’s a black velvet suit with gigantic sleeves, bell-bottom pants, rhinestones, five-inch platform heels and a gigantic Elvis wig. It’s so fabulous; I wish I could wear it for more than one number.”

With so many costumes (and so many costume changes to go with them), Harrison says there is no room for mistakes when getting in and out of the show’s designer duds. The show tours with three wardrobe personnel and two wig-wranglers. An additional 12 wardrobe personnel and two wig wranglers will be hired locally for the duration of the Chicago run. The local wardrobe and wig team will have only four hours to learn what Harrison calls “the controlled backstage chaos.”

“Backstage costume changes are choreographed much like a dance on stage,” she says. “Some of the actors have told me that the choreography the audience never gets to see is tougher than what they do get to see.”

There’s more to the show than its elaborate costumes, though.

“Yes, the show takes the costumes from the film and makes everything bigger,” Faber says. “There’s also this charming, sweet story, and when you put that together with the spectacle of the show, you really have a wonderful work of musical theater.”

Misha Davenport is a local free-lance writer.

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