It may be the most successful Australian musical of all time, but what we love most about Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical are the 500 eye-popping costumes, and to some degree, the rotating party bus. The electric bus known as Priscilla cruised into San Diego this week and is parked inside the Civic Theatre till Sunday, Oct. 20.
Gleaned from the 1994 film, we join two drag queens and a transsexual who trek across the Australian outback. The leads are terrific. Wade McCollum as Tick/Mitzi Mitosis confesses that he has a wife and kid. Bryan West as Adam/Felicia is an authentic self-destructive punk. And Scott Willis brings dignity and willowy grace to the role of the transsexual Bernadette.
Priscilla is driven by juke-box tunes from Dionne Warwick to Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Pat Benatar, with bitchy wisecracks to hold them together. Floating down from the rafters, a trio of angelic Divas sings the songs. The men jump in to lip-sync, which is very strange in a musical.
The music isn’t bad. The band in the pit boogies for more than two hours. If you’re a disco fan, you will sing along, no matter how hard your date pinches you to stop. An annoying culprit though, is a muddy sound system. Loud as it is, you’ll have to strain your ears to catch all of the lyrics and acid jibes. The show ultimately feels mechanical, like an old bus that roars but needs a tune up.
Using a recreational vehicle as a vessel for storytelling is a familiar and limited formula. There are dozens – who can forget Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs with fluffy-eared John Candy flying in a Winnebago? Or the Griswold’s hillbilly cousins who show up in their rusted out RV in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Meet The Fockers? Add Priscilla to that list.
As in the film Priscilla, three characters load up their bus with wigs and costumes and hit the road, to help Tick meet his son for the first time. Turns out his wife Marion runs a casino in Alice Springs, and they agree to put on a big show.
Along the way, they trade zingers and drink cocktails. Priscilla the bus rotates to reveal the interior. They bounce across the Australian Outback just fine, until the bus breaks down. They make friends with Bob the mechanic (Joe Hart), and they have run-ins with aggressive locals and dangerous homophobes.
The cast of men and women of all sizes portray fashion deprived hicks and fantasy chorus lines. They are gleaming in wild costumes: giant rubber platforms, bird head headpieces, and hints of the Village People. The choreography is entertaining, though more parade than dance. As Tick, the buff and bald-headed dad wanna-be, McCollum throws in a few smooth spins and leaps. Bob the mechanic’s mail-order bride does a nasty trick with ping pong balls.
It’s all performed with zeal and the cast delivers madcap entertainment. There are some heart-tugging moments. We cringe when angry locals vandalize the bus with hateful graffiti and attack with violence. In the end, they are mostly won over by entertainment and personal encounters. And we have made some progress since the film came out. It’s no longer strange for a gay man to be a father.
The heart of Priscilla isn’t the fish-out-of water story, or the tunes. It’s all about the outlandish costumes, which are glittering marvels. There’s nothing more fun and mindless than watching dancing cupcakes and paintbrushes. The topiary and ribbon candy headpieces are to die for.