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BWW Review: All Hail PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT

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Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, Directed by Stacey Stephens; Choreographer, Arthur Cuadros; Music Director, Jose C. Simbulan; Scenic Designer, Brian Ruggaber; Costume Designer, Stacey Stephens; Lighting Designer, Bailey Costa; Sound Designer, Brian McCoy; Makeup Designer, Joe Dulude II; Stage Manager, Alycia Marucci; Executive Producer, Meg Fofonoff

CAST: Larry Daggett, Andrew Giordano, Matthew Tiberi, Tamala Baldwin, Onyie Nwachukwu, Lindsay Roberts, Val Moranto, Bob Knapp, Lynn Craig, Cameron Levesque, Andrew Berlin, Christopher Pittman, Will Geoghegan, Stephanie Bissonnette, Valton Jackson, Tanner Lane, John Paul LaPorte, Theo Lencicki, Felix Marchany, Elle-May Patterson, Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva, Peter Romagna, Morissa Trunzo, Alec Varcas

Performances through October 9 by Fiddlehead Theatre Company at the Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-348-9738 or www.citicenter.org, www.fiddleheadtheatre.com

Fiddlehead Theatre Company's Boston premiere production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert dazzles, and it's not just because of the millions of sequins used by Director/Costume Designer Stacey Stephens for the ab-fab fashions of the glamorous drag performers and their entourage. With over 300 costumes, eleven 3-foot wide head-dresses, more than two dozen musical numbers, and a life-size bus named Priscilla, the show offers a visual and aural smorgasbord to rival a midnight snack on a cruise ship.

Based on the 1994 film of the same name, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is an extravaganza of song and dance that whirls you back to the 70s and 80s, making your head spin to the beat of a mirrored disco ball. The Shubert Theatre should be equipped with seat belts to prevent everyone from rushing the stage to join in on some of the biggest disco hits of the era, such as "It's Raining Men," "I Love the Nightlife," "I Will Survive," "Hot Stuff," and "Boogie Wonderland." As if anticipating how difficult it might be for the audience to stay put, members of the company open the second act by inviting a few lucky aisle-sitters to trip the light fantastic with them ("Thank God I'm a Country Boy").

The minimal plot concerns a trio of drag performers traveling from Sydney across the Australian Outback in their rickety bus cum dressing room to a gig and a family reunion in Alice Springs. Along the way, they bond with each other, win some new friends, offend some others, and sing and dance their hearts out. The relationships among the characters are a little prickly at the start, but they evolve as they rack up the miles and accept each other's quirks. The book has little nutritional value, but lots of warmth and heart, thanks to the leading men (ladies?) being all in.

Bailing out of a bottom of the barrel revue where he performs with a pair of hand puppets, Tick (Andrew Giordano) initiates the cross-country trip to visit his wife (read: "what was I thinking?") and meet his 6-year old son Benji (Cameron Levesque). You can bet Burt Bacharach and Hal David had something else in mind when they penned "I Say a Little Prayer," but when he sings it to a photo of the boy, Giordano fills the song with aching and fatherly love. Fast forward to their meeting and the two channel Elvis Presley in a fun and poignant rendition of "Always on My Mind," culminating in a bear hug that was six years in the making.

Tick/Mitzi entices his old friend Bernadette (Larry Daggett) to don the greasepaint again after the unexpected death of his boy toy partner, and rounds out the traveling trio with the sexy, unfiltered Adam/Felicia (Matthew Tiberi) because of his great performing skills. Bernadette is something of a mother figure who carries herself with dignity, while Felicia unabashedly struts her stuff. Tick falls somewhere in between, which is where he often finds himself when the other two square off. However, the foibles fade when they face the footlights in full drag regalia and show that they can really put on a show. The chemistry and harmony they produce is fab.

Each has numerous moments in the spotlight, but the first time we see Felicia ("Venus"), she does a very sensuous dance with a group of ripped boys and wows with her voice. Bernadette is surprised to find herself falling for Bob (Bob Knapp, very sweet and mensch-y) and delivers a powerful rendition of "MacArthur Park" that is practically an aria. Christopher Pittman is outstanding as another drag performer, Miss Understanding, and could give Tina Turner a run for her money ("What's Love Got to Do with It?"), and Will Geoghegan impresses as Young Bernadette in a memory sequence, wearing feathers and sequins and not much else.

A trio of divas (Tamala Baldwin, Onyie Nwachukwu, Lindsay Roberts), awash in white wigs and gowns, provides the glorious vocals when the drag performers are lip-synching during their act, or sing as back-up with them. The members of the company are also strong singers, but they are at their most dazzling in the production numbers staged by choreographer Arthur Cuadros. Highlights include synchronized marching in "Go West," "The Floor Show," and "Finale." Music Director Jose C. Simbulan and eight live musicians in the pit provide the lively, steady beat at the heart of the musical numbers.

Scenic Designer Brian Ruggaber suggests various locales with signage and minimal set pieces, while lighting designer Bailey Costa paints the background with different hues to good effect. Sound Designer Brian McCoy has the performers wearing mics and achieves a good balance with the music. The Aussie accents are uniformly good, but some of the lines are lost in pockets of muddied sound. Stephens' costume design is insanely good, matched by the artistry of makeup designer Joe Dulude II. Wearing his director's hat, Stephens has pulled together a multitude of moving parts for a grand spectacle that outshines the source material. Priscilla (the bus) may be in need of extensive repairs, but Priscilla, the musical is "Hot Stuff."

Photo credit: Courtesy Fiddlehead Theatre Company/©Eric Antoniou [Larry Daggett as Bernadette (left), Matthew Tiberi as Adam/Felicia (center), Andrew Giordano as Tick/Mitzi (right) and Company perform "I Will Survive"]


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