Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, California


I recently had the opportunity of the Priscilla Queen of the Desert stage musical at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, and was blown away by the production. This is fun show that is really well done, and it was definitely worth the braving the terrible traffic to get there.

The stage show is adapted from the 1994 movie by the same name. This film is a cult classic, with a fairly bizarre storyline. It is a tale of two drag queens and a transsexual woman that travel across Australia from Sydney to Alice Springs to perform a drag act, and meet the surprise son of one of the drag queens. Priscilla is the name of the tour bus that they use for the journey, and you can probably figure out the queen thing for yourself. It is full of sexist stereotypes and a bit of mild racism, but is still a pretty fun movie in a campy way. I liked it…

Priscilla Queen of the Desert was adapted into a musical in 2006 (also in Australia), and eventually moved on to Europe and Broadway in New York. The 2011 Broadway version was produced by veteran show woman Bette Midler. It was well-received by audiences and critics, and was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award Best New Musical award, and picked up a Tony for Best Costume Design.

This rendition of Priscilla is the first national tour of the musical, which kicked off earlier this year at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, and will finish up in September in Denver. The basic story follows that of the movie, with a few plot difference and timing changes, and includes a couple dozen singing and dancing numbers, mostly based on 1970s and 1980s pop and disco tunes. This show has a truly fun playlist, and a great book by Stephan Elliott and Alan Scott, the story carries very well from the movie to the theatre. Well, it is quite a bit happier than the movie, actually, which is what I had hoped for.

The sets and lighting were spectacular. The centerpiece is Priscilla, and it moved about on stage as needed and turned around so you could see its festive interior for some of the scenes. It also had oodles of built in lights so it could change colors as needed, and there were a number of sequences that took place on its. It was a striking effect and it really made the show for me.

The costumes were equally good. There were plenty of changes, and each one was more outlandish than the one before. Costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardner really outdid themselves.

The leads were well-chosen for their roles, and they did an admirable job of singing, dancing and acting. Wade McCollum took the lead as Tick (or Mitzi), and I felt true empathy for his character’s troubles. Scott Willis played Bernadette (the older transsexual), and Bryan West took on the role of Adam (Felicia). Willis and West had a great chemistry and the conflict from their opposing roles (traditional versus Modern drag queen) was really something to behold. West’s “Material Girl” was a awe-inspiring!

Joe Hart did a fine job as the “straight man,” as he was quite believable. I felt a little bad for Chelsea Zeno, who had to play the role of Cynthia, Bob’s gold-digging wife. She did well, but the role is racist and comes from misogynistic angle, and I don’t think it has a place in a 21st century musical.

The ensemble was a feast for all of the senses, with a pack of hunky and bitchy male dancers in almost no clothes, and a trio of divas that would miraculous appear all over the stage (and above) to sing for the masses. Well done, Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, and Brit West!

The orchestra was small (about 10 folks), but how many musicians do you need for the 70s and 80s hits they were cranking out? They did a fine job of capturing the spirit of the originals, while giving them a unique tone, and I did not hear any miscues.

The only bad thing I have to say is that though the musical and vocals were great the sound engineer did a terrible job of mixing them. The vocals were often overpowered by the guitar and bass, which is a shame for everybody involved.

Despite this trouble, I have to wholeheartedly recommend Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The book, singing, acting dancing, costumes, sets and lighting were all spot on. It was the craziest and most fun musical I have ever seen, and it provided a 2 ½ hour escape from reality, which is exactly what I expect from musical theatre. The tour has left Los Angeles, but if it comes your way you have to check it out when it hits your town – you will be glad you did!


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