Drag queens are roasted as they trek Australia in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Through January 27 State Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue • 216-241-6000

There are literally hundreds of reasons to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, now at PlayhouseSquare. But most of them have to do with costume and set design, more so than the performances and actual material that comprises this drag romp across the Australian outback.

Based on the movie of almost the same name, Priscilla the musical is a full-tilt jukebox musical glamfest, with all or bits of more than 25 pop songs force-fit into a slim storyline. And while the narrative is negligible to non-existent, the sheer force of this balls-out production is enough to sweep away most quibbles.

In brief, two drag queens (Mitzi and Felicia) and one transsexual (Bernadette) from Sydney are swishing across kangaroo land in their heels and wig hats, aiming for a gig in the outback burg of Alice Springs. Mitzi, whose male nickname is Tick, wants to go there because the club is owned by his wife, from whom he is separated. And also because he wants to connect with his eight-year-old son Benji.

Along the way, Bernadette is attracted to a bus mechanic in the sticks, Bob (an endearing Joe Hart), who helps the boys with their broken bus. Bob, something of a drag queen groupie, is trapped in a difficult marriage with a young woman with a startling ability to send ping pong balls soaring from her own down under.

These potentially interesting threads in the book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott are mostly curb-stomped by a galaxy of platform heels. The truckloads of costumes designed by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner come at you in tsunami waves of satin, spandex and tulle and are wittier than anything else in the show.

And the electrifying sets, including a neon pink bus in which the boy-girls ride, provide so much additional eye candy you may have to stare at a blank wall for a couple hours afterwards just to readjust your optic nerves.

Surfing this surge of glitz are the three leads, who acquit themselves well if not always brilliantly. As Tick, Wade McCollum tries to capture an everyday-guy vibe as dad and drag artist, resulting in a couple charming moments mixed in with some curiously spongy and unfocused scenes.

He is joined on the adventure by the older TS Bernadette (a fairly mellow Scott Willis) and young, hot-to-trot Felicia, played and sung with bracing verve and spontaneity by Bryan West.

They are watched over, for real, by three suspended Divas who belt out the show's signature song, "It's Raining Men," and back up other pop faves while dangling from the rafters on clouds of organza.

Unfortunately, the spark of originality is missing from most of the words, either spoken or trilled. The songs, while familiar, only relate to the storyline in a glancing manner.

It also doesn't help that the jokes feel as old and worn as last year's pantyhose. When one of the pals references a song by murmuring, "Touch me in the morning," another responds, "Do I have to?" Stop, you're killing me. And, of course, there are plenty of bus-related double entendres involving injectors, rear entries and such.

Probably the most amusing gag is when the show offers a rational explanation for the famously quizzical line from "MacArthur Park" that goes. "Someone left the cake out in the rain..." This happy discovery is accompanied by another major musical production number, complete with a chorus line of cakes dancing under umbrellas.

Sure, the reunion of Tick and Benji feels way too neat and uncomplicated. And the budding romance between Bernadette and Bob flattens out. But this dazzling production never loses it's will to amaze and delight. Indeed, there are probably 50 new costumes just for the curtain call alone.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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