‘Priscilla’ overindulges in drag-queen formula
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org March 21, 2013 12:14AM
The company of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" perform "Go West." | © Joan Marcus
‘PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, THE MUSICAL’
When: Through March 30
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Info: (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Updated: March 23, 2013 12:09PM
The easiest way to think about “Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical,” is to imagine what has become the most popular of Broadway cocktails in recent decades.
The recipe goes like this: Take two shots of “La Cage aux Folles” (on steroids). Mix with a big splash of “Mamma Mia!” Add a dash of “Hairspray,” and just the vaguest hint of “The Full Monty.” Shake well, garnish with about 500 costumes and giant umbrellas, and pour into oversized glasses labeled “The Down Under Special (or The Best Little Self-Esteem Tonic for Drag Queens and Transsexuals Traveling from the Bright Lights of Sydney to the Farflung Reaches of Alice Springs).”
And while you’re at it, inject a father-son acceptance story. And in classic Edward Albee fashion, go on to suggest that straight men are either brute bigots or secretly dreaming of a homosexual encounter. And there is always the matter of “a child.”
And oh, don’t forget the jukebox score from the 1960s through the ’80s, which, it must be said, is used to clever effect at times. And it’s a good thing, too, because there is precious more than the thinnest thread — and a whole lot of tiresome “old school” gay bitchiness — holding together this Technicolor spectacle, now making a national touring stop at the Auditorium Theatre.
Wednesday’s opening night audience seemed to be having a grand time. Drag extravaganzas have become the Follies Bergeres of our age with one major alteration: The shapeliest legs now belong to the guys. The three “biologically” female characters in this show are, tellingly: A sweet, straight Aussie woman who had a kid with a gay man; a shrewish Asian woman with a slew of sex tricks (and they are not up her sleeve), and an angry, macho lesbian.
Those familiar with the 1994 film know the story: Tick/Mitzi (the tall, leggy, elastic Wade McCollum) is a drag queen who gets a call from his wife, Marion (Christy Faber), who runs a casino theater in Alice Springs. She needs an act. And their 6-year-old son, Benji, wants to meet his dad.
So Tick calls on Adam/Felicia (Bryan West), a younger, cruder drag queen, and the older, elegant, newly “widowed” transsexual, Bernadette (Scott Willis, quite wonderful in quasi-Barbara Stanwyck mode), to travel with him into the outback. They buy a big old bus they name Priscilla, and it’s off they go on a road trip of self-discovery.
Throughout, three clarion-voiced divas (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West) descend from the clouds. And we hear everything from “What’s Love Got to Do With It” to “Material Girl,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I Will Survive,” “MacArthur Park” and a lip-synched aria from “La Traviata.”
There is high energy direction by Simon Philips, and choreography by Ross Coleman, but it’s costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (who created the original film costumes) who drive the show, turning humans into whirling cupcakes, pink paint brushes, exotic birds, disco clowns, you name it. Adding to the mounds of eye candy is the revolving Priscilla (the bus designed by Brian Thomson). The only problem is that its passengers are traveling through far too predictable territory.