Priscilla Queen of the Desert

            At the Auditorium Theatre

                  by Dan Zeff

Chicago– Yes “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” is over the top. Agreed that its touchy-feely moments are sappy. And I’ll concede that the show’s structure is shaky. But as a good time musical it could be the hoot of the year.

“Priscilla” is the musical adaptation of a 1994 movie about three drag queens traveling by bus through the Australian outback. The show was understandably a huge hit in Aussie land, likewise a hit in London, and did well on Broadway. It’s now kicking up its gaudy 10-inch heels at the Auditorium Theatre for a too-short two week run.

“Priscilla” has a slender reed of a storyline about the three men riding a rickety bus, the Priscilla of the title, to Alice Springs where the transsexual Tick (aka professionally as Mitzi) wants to meet his young son, living with Tick’s wife in remote Alice Springs. That’s about all the audience needs to know about the plot.

The musical’s score is a compendium of disco hits and pop numbers, mostly from the 1970’s and 1980s. Some are sung by the performers and some are lip-synced. A few of the songs connect with the characters and the narrative, but most are simply lavish production numbers that give the show countless opportunities to camp it up to the max, with lots of bitchy repartee and a few delicious satirical jabs. The production numbers are there because they are there. How else to explain a young lady in a silver sequined body suit gyrating above the stage within a giant silver slipper and mouthing an aria from “La Traviata.” Or Tick suddenly and joyously leading the ensemble in a romping rendition of “MacArthur Park.”

The songs represent a roll call of pop singing stars of the disco era, from Madonna and Cyndi Lauper to Tina Turner and Pat Benatar, with a John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” injected as a second act curtain raiser. There’s even “A Fine Romance,” a ballad standard by Jerome Kern from 1936. The performer throughout are decked out in a spectacular array of flashy costumes that look like they were inspired by an unlikely marriage between science fiction styles and fashions out of an opium dream. Designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardner deserve a separate wing in the Costumers Hall of Fame for their concoctions. The split-second mass clothing changes backstage must be a dazzling display of organized chaos. In a medley number near the end of the show the three leading men make their changes on the run behind a curtain that repeatedly swishes across the stage. The high-velocity number belongs as much in a magic show as the musical.

Considering the gay flavor of the show and the relentless double entendres of the dialogue, “Priscilla” is a surprisingly inoffensive show, even its raunchier moments coated with breezy wit and even charm. The show obviously isn’t for all tastes, but nobody is going to wander into the Auditorium Theatre expecting an Anton Chekhov revival. In that spirit, the show should ruffle no audience feathers for its salty content.

The production profits from three exemplary performances by the trio of performers heading the large ensemble. Wade McCollum is a buff and angular Tick, a triple threat actor, singer, and dancer, as are the men who play Tick’s two gay traveling mates, Scott Willis as Bernadette and Bryan West as Felicia (Adam in private life). Joe Hart joins the threesome late in the show as a straight middle aged mechanic who tries to keep the ancient bus running and strikes up a relationship with Bernadette, apparently unaware that she is a he.

Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, and Brit West play the three Divas who have nothing to do with the story but much to do with the musical success of the evening, starting with their descent from the rafters in florid costumes singing “It’s Raining Men.” That set the audience cheering on opening night and, musically at least, the show never looks back.

Chelsea Zeno performs a jovial R-rated dance in an outback barroom that redefines how to launch ping-pong balls from the female anatomy (I got bonked on the forehead by one of the balls, a theatrical experience I don’t expect ever to replicate). Shane Davis plays Tick’s son and I wonder how much the lad understood what was going on around him.

“Priscilla” occasionally decides to make a statement about the cruelty of anti-gay attitudes. Those moments jar the feel-good momentum of the vehicle without doing anymore more than affirming that homophobia is hurtful and wrong. The eventual reunion between Tick and his wife and young son is supposed to touch the audience’s heartstrings. The reunion does bring the story to a happy closure but I’d trade it for one more singing and dancing joyride through the disco songbook. I also struggled at times with the Australian accents on stage.

The large Auditorium Theatre playing area and its technical facilities serve the musical well. This production needs to be seen in all its opulence and excess and the staging spares nothing, including streamers raining down from the ceiling.

Brian Thomson designed the terrific exterior and interior of the life-sized bus, which rotates impressively on the stage turntable. Nick Schlieper designed the lighting and Jonathan Deans and Peter Fitzgerald the sound. Stephen Murphy supervised the synthesizer-dominated musical accompaniment. Ross Coleman is the choreographer and Simon Philips is the director and they both can be congratulated on their imagination and skill at orchestrating such a complex feast for the spectator’s eyes and ears.

“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” runs through March 30 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress Parkway. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $28 to $85. Call 800 775 2000 or visit

             The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.          March 2013

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