BWW Review: PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT at Palm Canyon Theatre
Just in time for Pride, Palm Canyon Theatre has rolled out a new production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and she is firing on all cylinders! PCT did a knockout production of the show a few years ago and it was so good, I was concerned about the new staging, many new actors, new set, etc. I had no need for worry. The new production is probably even better than the first!
Based on the cult favorite Australian movie of the same name, the story follows three crossdressing entertainers on their journey from Sydney to Alice Springs, an isolated town in the red center of Australia. Tick (Ben Reece), a Sydney drag entertainer, has an ex-wife who runs a resort in Alice Springs, and has asked him to bring a group to entertain there. He asks his transgendered friend Bernadette (Ron Coronado) and fellow drag queen Adam (Jay Espano) to join him. To make the trip, they acquire an old bus which they spritz up and christen Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Along the way, they visit a couple of outback towns with varying degrees of welcome, and meet some interesting people, most significantly a mechanic named Bob (Luke Rainey), who is starstruck by Bernadette.
The show is a jukebox musical, picking favorite familiar songs from the 70's and 80's, and the songs alone are enough to raise the heartbeat of the audience. It is almost impossible for most of us of a certain age to hear that music without time-tripping to a pleasant period in our lives.
The story starts in a drag bar in Sydney where Miss Understanding (Kam Sisco) is headlining. As she sings "What's Love Got to Do With It?" she takes ownership of the stage. Sisco knows how to demand attention. Then Tick rushes in, late for work, and does a number with puppets on each hand in his drag alter-ego, Mitzi Mitosis. That's the first of many happy times that we get to hear Reece's amazing singing voice. Next, we meet Adam who performs in drag as Felicia Jolly Goodfella. For the rest of the evening, the cast has to fight to keep Espano from stealing every scene. He's a puppy compared to Bernadette and Tick, and his youthful exuberance is charming to the audience, and irritating to his fellow travelers.
Returning from the previous production is Ron Coronado as Bernadette, a former drag showgirl who has transitioned. On opening night, he received a hand on his first entrance because the audience has grown to love him in this role. This time out, he has successfully learned that less is more. In the midst of all the madness, he remains composed, and thereby in command. The design team have also glammed Bernadette up this time around. Some of her outfits are drop-dead gorgeous, and we can see why Bob Falls for her. And speaking of Bob, Luke Rainey is even better than his previous outing, giving the outback mechanic a goofiness combined with a heart of gold. He also sounds great on "A Fine Romance," his one solo. Bob's mail order former bride, Cynthia, is delightful in the hands of PCT veteran, Leslie Benjamin, and yes, there are ping pong balls! Also, a shout out to Chandra Smith as Tick's ex-wife and Everett Nickolopolous as his son, with whom he discovers a new bond. The father and son getting to know each other in the last moments of the show brings a bit of a tear to the eye.
Three divas (Allegra Angelo, Desiree Clark, and April Mejia) serve as a backing group to many of the songs. They appear on the edges of the stage, on an upstage raised platform (where they aren't lit very well), and in the aisles of the theatre in a variety of stunning outfits, giving the familiar backing sound to the numerous rock hits in the show.
The show's ensemble really gets a workout! Many of them are first seen as drag performers, then switch to outback roughnecks, aboriginals, tourists, and general ensemble for big production numbers. Some of them have speaking roles including Michele Davis as a hilariously potbellied outback bar owner, and David Brooks as a priest.
Derik Shopinski's costumes draw some of the biggest, most appreciative laughs in the show. What's a drag show without extravagance? They are completed by Mado Nunez's wigs and makeup. The first act finish, the gay anthem "I Will Survive," has perhaps the most outrageous costumes of the evening, and the audience needs intermission just to recover. Toby Griffin's sets work well and allow quick changes from various bars to the titular bus, to the outback.
This much enjoyable magic onstage is the hallmark of a strong director, and that credit goes to Richard Marlow. Amidst the camping and rock hitlist, he has found times to show three friends growing to love each other, and some very special moments near the end when Tick reunites with his son. Se Layne's choreography also works very well to keep the stage a parade of color and movement. Musical Director Steven Smith knew just how to best display some wonderful voices, and he kept the pace at a crescendo as he accompanied the show at the piano, joined by David Bronson on drums, Larry Holloway on bass, and John Pagles on guitar.
Although the show deals with gay characters, the human interactions and collection of rock classics make this show absolutely suitable for all audiences, including youngsters. In addition to fabulous costumes, hilarious foibles, and a collection of disco's greatest hits, the bottom line is a story of the love between friends, a bit of romantic love, and the love between father and son. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, is a must-see for anyone who likes theatre, likes music, or likes to laugh. A truly enjoyable night out! Don't miss it!
Priscilla plays for three more weekends, through November 17. Tickets and further information are available at www.palmcanyontheatre.org. Now is also a good time to book for PCT's December family musical, The King and I, playing November 29 through December 23.
Photo by Paul Hayashi