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PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT
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BWW Reviews: Hilarious, Campy PRISCILLA Musical Sashays into L.A.

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During the glittery initial moments of the stage musical PRISCILLA - QUEEN OF THE DESERT, three floating, stratospheric-belting "divas" (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, and Brit West)---much like omniscient guardian angels sent from a disco-ball enhanced, all-faiths heaven---descend from high above and warble through the Weather Girls' massive global hit "It's Raining Men." Meanwhile, below them center stage, a colorfully-painted drag queen emerges to lip-dub the song in perfect time as she's surrounded by fit, tightly-clad boys writhing in sweaty, choreographed syncopation.

This fun opening scene---set at a gay club in Downtown Sydney, Australia---certainly wows as an entertaining, off-the-charts start to this party. But, gosh, this number, my dear friends and readers, is but a mere toe-dip in this show's infinity pool of high-camp frivolity yet to come.

Hilarious, visually arresting, and, woah, surprisingly heart-warming, PRISCILLA---the rousing stage musical adaptation of the 1994 Oscar-winning indie film of the same name---is an outlandishly silly show from start to finish, filled with non-stop eye-popping visuals, out-of-this-world costumes, playfully cheeky adult banter, and a smile-inducing songbook crammed with familiar, decade-defining pop hits. Though, sure, PRISCILLA---a fun, non-apologetic musical celebration of drag culture and artistry---may not necessarily be everyone's cup-o'-tea, open-minded theatergoers seeking to experience a fun, non-serious, genuinely entertaining spectacle will truly enjoy this musical comedy's first national tour production now playing a limited engagement at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through June 16.

Featuring a book written by Allan Scott and the original film's writer/director Stephan Elliot, the stage iteration of PRISCILLA stays fairly faithful to the plot of its source material, but with, understandably, a different degree of execution.

First, we meet drag queen performer Tick (the wonderful Wade McCollum) whose stage alter-ego is Mitzi Mitosis. One night after a drag show, Tick gets a call from his friendly ex-wife Marion (Christy Faber) who pleads for him to return to their far-from-Sydney hometown of Alice Springs so that he can finally meet his---surprise!---now eight-year-old son Benji (played by Shane Davis on opening night) face-to-face.

Reluctant at first, Tick gets an additional bonus offer: Marion also needs a new "act" for a few weeks at the casino she works at and thinks Tick---and perhaps a few of his "showbiz" friends---would be great for it. Income plus a chance to finally connect with his son? He couldn't pass it up, natch.

Tick soon recruits two close pals for the casino act: Bernadette (the mesmerizing Scott Willis), an aging transsexual from the old-school style of glamour drag, whose husband recently just died; and outspoken Adam (the adorable BRyan West), a young, Madonna-obsessed up-and-comer whose stage name is Felicia. Though Tick's two friends clearly can't stand each other---which becomes an amusing running source of acerbic, all-t-all-shade exchanges between them throughout the show---everyone eventually agrees to leave their old lives in Sydney behind and set off for the wilds of the Australian Outback for remote Alice Springs.

And what, pray tell, do these ladies use to trek themselves through the desert? Well, with little funds to work from, Tick procures a dilapidated old RV which they, of course, quickly redecorate---and soon christen with the name "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

And like every musical that follows a journey/quest/road trip through unchartered, unfamiliar territory, Priscilla and her exquisite passengers have unexpected run-ins and, sometimes, even dangerous encounters with various people in their path. Along the way, Adam gets some rooftop lip-syncing practice time (yes, the infamous sequence from the film is vivaciously re-created), Bernadette falls head-over-heels with a small town mechanic (Joe Hart), and Tick is overjoyed that someone inadvertently left their cake out in the rain.

Unabashedly joyful and infectiously giddy, PRISCILLA---a crowd-pleasing hit in Australia, London and Broadway---is a wildly over-the-top musical that aims to not only please fans of the cult film but also try to please almost everyone---open-minded or not---in attendance. The characters are so adorably outrageous (sometimes cartoonishly so) yet are still so kind and approachable, that even judgmental adults that may still be uncomfortable with the "alternative" lifestyles on vivid display (you name it---homosexuals, drag queens, transsexuals, shy country bumkins who like transsexuals, gay twinks, etc.) can't help but feel even a slight affection for them, particularly when these characters are shown being confronted by the kind of bigotry their non-fictional counterparts confront in daily life. It's an empathy lesson disguised as a musical comedy!

Surrounded by funny lines, ridiculous situations, fabulous frocks (Costume Designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner definitely deserved their Tony Awards for this), easy to root-against "villains," and a soundtrack of crowd-pleasing dance floor favorites, PRISCILLA no doubt gives less importance to the narrative, letting it take a back seat to the forward promotion of the show's fantastic, continuously one-upping visual and musical splendors. Normally, such a practice irks the crap out of me; but here, somehow, it's less of a blow.

Why? Because, like its opening number and the subsequent sequences that follow, PRISCILLA continuously entertains with its conveyor belt of unhinged, self-aware silliness, making the show, in the grand scheme of things, just darn fun. And the jauggernaut for the senses doesn't let up. And though there is a pre-teen cast member featured in parts of the show, PRISCILLA, I must warn, is not a show for the really wee ones under ten.

Seeing all these insanely creative glow-in-the-dark costumes bedecking lovable, self-confident characters armed with brave, daring souls, witty minds, and enormous, uh, hearts, it's no wonder that it's fairly easy to forgive this show's many objectionable flaws. I mean, really, once you see a parade of giant-sized paint brushes magically painting the graffiti-vandalized Priscilla in a can't-miss neon pink to the tune of "Colour My World," followed by "I Will Survive," all kinds of realism is---happily---thrown out the door. PRISCILLA, from top to bottom, is a musical that's in on the joke, and, by proximity, so are we.

Heck, even PRISCILLA, the titular, scene-stealing star of the show plays along, becoming one of the show's many technical marvels. Who knew a big hunk of metal would have such a bold, enchanting personality?!

Okay, so, sure, the show utilizes pre-existing music rather than brand new original songs, which many will probably gripe as a lazy way to create a musical (I don't mind this part too much, actually). And, yes, the movie version certainly treats the story much more winningly and with a more discernible amount of care than the stage version does. Oh, and what about the revival of that borderline offensive character that springs out of nowhere spouting out expletives in Tagalog (funny as they are to me, someone who speaks the language) while spouting out ping-pong balls from, well... never mind. Despite all that, PRISCILLA still handily won me over.

Essentially at its core, everyone involved with PRISCILLA---including director Sion Philips and choreographer Ross Coleman---seems to know, too, that the show is not about those things. Like its cast of characters, the musical is a barrel of (mostly) likable, funny extremes---so why bog yourself down with heavy, after-school special-type life lessons and just have some frikkin fun for a change? Frankly, after sitting through some intensely-emotional (albeit, extraordinary) musicals lately, it's really great to finally just sit through a musical comedy and just laugh my ass off like there's no tomorrow. In a way, the musical promotes the idea of life being too damn short---and too damn fabulous---for all of us to take things so seriously.

But, by the way, don't worry. Deep down this wonderfully engaging show's important themes of acceptance, tolerance, friendship, perseverance, and, above all, being true to oneself doesn't just drown in a sea of sequins and sparkle. The show's ultimately uplifting messages---delivered in the show magnificently thanks to the awesome portrayals crafted by the show's three outstanding, truly gifted lead actors---still manages to come shining through.

There is an awful lot of bravado involved in putting on a dress. And these faux ladies make it look like the most freeing, most liberating thing in the world. Wow, imagine that! How can you possibly get that annoyed by a show so winsome and eager to please?

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq

Photos by Joan Marcus, courtesy of the Pantages Theatre. From top: Mitzi (Wade McCollum), Bernadette (Scott Willis), and Felicia (BRyan West) glam up; Felicia (West) rides a bedazzled giant stiletto atop Priscilla; the ladies turn a bad day into a rainbow-hued party.

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Performances of PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT: THE MUSICAL at the Pantages Theatre continue through June 16 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.

Tickets can be purchased online at www.BroadwayLA.org, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets.

The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.

For more information, please visit www.BroadwayLA.org.


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