All Hail PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE MUSICAL!
For the next several weeks, Chicago is a much brighter place to be with
the arrival of Priscilla Queen of The Desert. The impeccable touring production of the Australian tuner opened with a bang at the Auditorium theatre to a ten minute standing ovation, which is almost unheard of these day. Suffice to say, that ovation is well deserved.
Based on the 1994 Academy Award winning film which follows the adventures of two drag queens and a transsexual as they tour across the Outback, the musical first opened in Sydney in 2006 to become the most successful musical in that country’s history. A West End production opened in 2009, followed by Toronto then Broadway in 2011.
The musical version, with book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott closely follows the its film counterpart in plot points, but it is in score that these two separate. For the film, the music was based on young drag queen Felicia’s fixation with ABBA and their music was central. For the stage version that territory has already been staked out by Mamma Mia, so another route had to be taken. Thus, in this incarnation, we hear some the most popular tunes from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Felicia’s love of ABBA is now turned to Madonna and with the Material Girl’s music and other divas that reign supreme on the charts, this high velocity production gets set in motion.
The one thing that has always separated Priscilla from the other musicals of her kin is that from the start, it is a story ripe with humanity and emotion. The three friends, Tick (Wade McCollum), Bernadette (Scott Willis) and Adam/Felicia (Bryan West) are all very complicated characters whose outward appearance and joy mask complicated inward layers of hurt. The big brassy production numbers are always followed by ballads that bring out the inner longing of acceptance they are looking for.
What the musical does so exquisitely is take existing popular songs, whose lyrics are engrained in our collective memory, and reinterpret them to a specific situation giving them an even stronger meaning. Dionne Warwick’s “I Say A Little Prayer” takes on a whole new life as Tick sings it as a longing to see his son; Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” becomes a tear jerker has the trio faces humiliation and rejection; while MacArthur Park…..well you will have to see it to believe it. Then there are the anthems of old that still send goose bumps up and down your spine for the collective joy of togetherness they bring, including “It’s Raining Men” and “I Will Survive”.
There have been quite a few changes to the score since I saw the London production. The music in both the West End and original Australian version focused more on 60’s and 70’s hits in including Downtown, Venus and I’ve Never Been to Me. [The one exclusion that does not work as well is that of Both Sides Now, here replaced by True Colors]. From its transfer across the ocean,Priscilla picked up Bette Midler as a producer for the Broadway incarnation and with that a much more of an 80’s music feel. Even with musical changes Priscialla still keeps the core story of a father heading back to his hometown see his son for the first time and the anxiety it brings because of his sexuality and life in “show business”.
The cast for this tour is second to none, lead by the sensational Wade McCollum (Tick/Mitzi) who has a intrinsic command of the stage and moves like a rubber band in the production numbers. The final scene when he is reunited with this son Benji (Shane Davis) will rip your heart in two. Scott Willis’ performance of Bernadette will stay with you long after you leave the theatre as there is an internal sense of truth and optimism he brings that is optimistically infectious. Then of course there is Bryan West (Adam/Felicia) whose energy is the backbone of this production and reminds all of us of the innocence of youth and the trouble that innocence gets us into.
Director Simon Philips and Choreographer Ross Coleman work seamlessly together to keep the action going at a vibrant pace with the production numbers moving the plot forward. All the action takes place on Brian Thomson’s stage design, where the Technicolor bus is worth the price of admission alone. Then there are the costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. Quite frankly, there has been nothing quite like them before and may not be for decades to come. They are vibrant, intricate, fun and bawdy, becoming as integral to the musical as the book itself.
Then there is that intangible of seeing Priscilla with a great audience. It is that unknown of the force of the magic of live theatre that projects and engery from the crowd to the actors and back again that makes this a very special production. There is a respect from both sides of the proscenium and you must witness. Your life, be it all for a couple hours, will be all the better for spending time with the ladies of Priscilla, not just Queen of the Desert, but as least for now, Queen of the musical theatre.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert plays though March 30, 2013 at the Auditorium Theatre. For more information visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com and for tour information visit www.priscillathemusical.com. For calendar information visit www.TheatreinChicago.com