If you were to ask me a week ago, I probably would have thought this review would be comparing the flash and glam story of Priscilla – Queen of the Desert (which we saw last night at the Pantages) with the deep and serious story at the heart of Scottsboro Boys. Although that comparison is still apt, the real parallel for Priscilla is Elton John’s Million Dollar Piano which we saw in early May. The stars in Elton’s show were the music and the million dollar piano; in Priscilla, it is the music and the million dollar bus.
If you are not familiar with the story, Priscilla – Queen of the Desert is a musical version of the 1994 movie. The surface story is a slight one: three Australian drag queens leave Sidney to travel across the Australian desert in an old bus to Alice Springs, where they have been hired to work in a casino. Along the way, they hit a number of small Australian towns, which don’t know what to make of the three drag queens — and so they get to win them over with the dual powers of drag and disco music. The slightly deeper story concerns the road trip of each of the three main queens: Tick/Mitzi (the leader) instigates the trip at the behest of his wife (Marion), who wants him to go to Alice Springs to meet his son, Benji. Bernadette just lost the man of her dreams in Sidney, and is questing to find the right person. Adam/Bernadette is questing to, as he put it, to climb a rock in a frock with a cock. Along the way they pick up a mechanic, Bob; wear fabulous outfits; travel in a beat of RV that they transform into Priscilla; and dance numerous popular numbers.
As I indicated earlier, I initially thought I would be contrasting the serious story at the heart of Scottsboro Boys to the fluff that is Priscilla. But that’s not the best comparison. Priscilla is really a musical version of The Million Dollar Piano. First and foremost, the star is Priscilla, a bus that is covered with an LED lighting system that, once it is activated, provides visual imagery just like the piano did in Elton’s show. It is also a show that doesn’t focus on new music, but delights in bringing back the favorites that please the audience. Lastly, and most importantly I believe, is that Tick’s journey mirrors that of Elton John. He starts out a performer who is best known for his flash and outrageous costumes, and goes on a journey that bring him to fatherhood and family. It is a similar journey that is the real heart of Priscilla: Tick’s journey from being a drag performer in Sidney to being (albeit still a drag performer) a father with a son in Alice Springs. This transformation — this heart — is what turns this from a campy jukebox musical into a touching theatre piece.
Just like drag queens… and much of Elton’s act… the focus is on flash. The show opens with three diva being lowered from the ceiling belting out disco tunes. These diva return throughout the evening to set the stage with appropriate disco music. There are costumes and sequins and dresses and heels galore (and not just on the ladies, but the men as well, and even on Priscilla (the bus)). There is even audience participation (as some audience members go on stage for a hoedown) and a dancer who pops corks into the audience (seemingly) from her vagina (something I never thought would be on the stage of the Pantages). This is all played with a sense of fun and joy; the goal is to make the evening a party — a faaaaaabulous celebration. This is not an issue of getting the drag queens to accept who they are; the acceptance here is that of the world, who is going to accept the drag queens for what they are. This played well with the Los Angeles audience, and especially with a group of gays who were sitting near us and having the time of their life with this show. It also plays well with the end of the show, and the question of whether Tick’s son will address Tick as who he is — a very non-traditional father. Perhaps this is the ultimate theme of Priscilla — have fun with life, embrace who you are, find and embrace your family (however it is constituted), and look fabulous along the way.
The story of Priscilla was adapted for the stage by Stephan Elliott, the author of the original screenplay, and Allan Scott. The transformation was relatively faithful to the film, from what I hear. It was brought to life under the directorial hand of Simon Philips (assisted by Associate Director David Hyslop) with choreography by Ross Coleman (assisted by Joshua Buscher, Associate Choreographer, and Andrew Hallsworth, the original Assistant Choreographer). This transformation worked relatively well — you believed that these were real people as much as you could (c’mon, an LED encrusted bus in the middle of the Australian desert requires a large amount of suspension of belief). I think the real effect of the direction was to bring out the inner queen in all of the performers; to encourage them to go up a notch or two (or three or four) in bringing out their inner fabulousity and beauty. The dancing and movement was then added to amp things up even more to bring unbridled joy to the show. Priscilla is a show you walk out of feeling good. It makes you happy; it lifts your mood on 8″ pumps.
The performances in Priscilla were spectacular. The leads in particular turn the performance from what could have been a stereotypical drag queen performance into something much deeper (similar to the way we see the depths of the characters in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything…). As Tick, Wade McCollum moves along a path from Diva to Father. At the beginning, Tick is a man unsure about embracing the fact he is a father (from a marriage dating to before his transformation) to a man who accepts it as part of who he is. McCollum portrays this wonderfully, along the way singing and dancing up a storm. Scott Willis, as Bernadette, undergoes a similar transformation. Starting out as an old-style lip-synching drag queen who has just buried her boyfriend, Bernadette goes on this journey to find something new… and along the way, finds something she didn’t expect in a place she didn’t expect. Willis’s Bernadette was a remarkable performance, reminding me a lot of Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year — tall, statuesque, and strong, with surprising singing and dancing chops. Lastly, Bryan West‘s Adam/Felicia is the most impulsive of the three, living the drag life for all the fun she can squeeze out of it. The real motivation of her character never comes out (a story flaw), and at the end you are left wondering if she is the same girl that started on the trip. Still, West’s performance was spectacular and a joy to watch.
In the second tier, we have performers who were less out there singing and dancing as their characters, and more for the non-singing characters they portray. This includes Joe Hart as Bob, the mechanic who joins Priscilla midway and discovers a new life (but not in drag). Hart’s performance is realistic and fun to watch. I’m also impressed that Hart admits, in his bio, that he was in the original casts of both Bonnie & Clyde and The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. It also includes the characters that bookend the story: Christy Faber as Marion and Will B. / Shane Davis as Benji (not sure which performer we had). These are the wife and son that instigate and ground Tick’s journey. These three characters together provide the normalcy of the piece — they are realistic people that you would like to meet (and note that these really aren’t singing roles). This “grounding” is what makes the entire drag side acceptable; these three show that the drag queens are real people under the glam. In particular, the portrayal by these three actors just makes this all real.
Rounding out the cast is a large ensemble of singers and dancers, including the aforementioned three divas. They do not particularly establish characters that stick with you, although they are remarkable dancers, singers, and are a hoot to watch. These performers are Emily Afton (Diva, Ensemble), Bre Jackson (Diva, Ensemble), Brit West (Diva, Ensemble), Taurean Everett (Jimmy, Ensemble), Nik Alexzander (Miss Understanding, Ensemble), Chelsea Zeno (Cynthia, Ensemble), David Koch (Frank, Ensemble), Travis Taber (Farrah / Young Bernadette, Ensemble), Babs Rubenstein (Shirley, Ensemble), John Capes (Ensemble), Andrew Chappelle (Ensemble), Alex Deleo (Ensemble), Amy Hillner Larsen (Swing), Chris Klink (Ensemble), Ralph Meitzler (Swing), and Alex Ringler (Ensemble). Of these, the most memorable were the divas, singing wonderfully and moving the best they could on their hanging platforms, and Babs Rubenstein, who for some reason kept drawing my eye with her comic performances.
Musically, the show is a delight. This is a jukebox show, with songs primarily drawn from the disco era: “It’s Raining Men”, “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, “Go West”, “I Love the Nightlife”, “Colour My World”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, “Boogie Wonderland”… you get the idea. The actors and dancers had fun with the music, and so did the audience. Orchestrations were by Stephen “Spud” Murphy and Charlie Hull. Murphy was also the overall music supervisor, with Jeff Marder having that responsibility in North America. Brent Frederick was music director, and Talitha Fehr of TL Music International serving as music coordinator. Frederick also conducted the 11 person orchestra.
Technically, a lot of credit goes to Brian Thompson, the scenic designer. He created the bus that is Priscilla; he created the remarkable sets and transformations that are on stage (and that make this a production that may never be done on a high-school stage). A few words about Priscilla: this is a bus that can rotate to show all sides, with turning wheels, covered in LEDs. It is quite amazing. Also setting the scene was the wonderful lighting of Nick Schlieper and Jonathan Spencer — the lighting designed by these two not only establishes the mood, but becomes part of the music through the movement and the images on Priscilla. The third part of the scene setting was done by the wonderful costumes of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. These were spectacular and creative, especially in the “Shake Your Groove Thing” number, and the imaginative approach to costumes in Alice Springs. I also loved the interaction between the costumes, the lighting, and Priscilla in “MacArthur Park”. Technical supervision was by MB Productions. You may have noticed I’ve saved sound design for last — that’s because the sound design (by Jonathan Deans and Peter Fitzgerald) was the most problematic. On one hand, the show had great sound effects and there were no micing problems. On the other hand… this is the Pantages. Sound — especially accents — is very muddied when you are sitting in the back of the theatre. Either the lead sound designers — or more likely, the Pantages master sound engineer Shane Cook, did not retune to the sound design for the Pantages’ peculiar acoustic signature. We had to strain to hear and understand that actors. That shouldn’t happen.
Lastly, Tom Bartlett was the production stage manager, Chad Lewis was the stage manager, Ryan J. Bell was the assistant stage manager, and Roberta Roberts was the general stage manager.
“Priscilla – Queen of the Desert“ continues through June 16 at the Pantages. Tickets are available from the Pantages online, although they are cheaper in person at the box office. You can also get them through Goldstar. If you want to have a fun couple of hours, Priscilla is worth seeing.
The Pantages has announced their 2013-2014 season (which starts after Sister Act (7/09 – 7/28/13)), and (for me) it is mostly “ehhh”. It consists of the following shows (shows I’m planning to see are in bold): Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of The Wizard of Oz (9/17-10/06/13); War Horse (10/08-10/13/13); Evita (10/23-11/10/13); Disney’s The Lion King (11/20/13-1/12/14); The Book of Mormon (1/21/14-2/09/14); Green Day’s American Idiot (5/13-5/18/13); The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber (6/03-6/22/2014); Ghost – The Musical (6/27-7/13/14); Once – A New Musical (7/15-8/10/14).
Dining Notes: Once again we opted to take the Red Line from North Hollywood to the Pantages at Hollywood/Vine. I recommend this as it saves on parking hassles and $$. It also allowed us to discover a great Puerto Rican restaurant in North Hollywood: Mofongos Comida Caribeña. This is on Lankershim between Oxnard and Burbank (a few blocks from the No. Hollywood Red Line station) and was just wonderful. We’ll be back.
Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: Next weekend, so far, has no theatre: Saturday will be So Cal Games Day 54, and Sunday (Fathers Day) will likely be a trip to the ScienceCenter and the newly renovated Museum of Natural History. The third weekend of June brings “Next to Normal” at La Mirada, with Nick DeGruccio directing and starring Bets Malone and Tessa Grady. The last weekend of June brings a Maria Muldaur concert at McCabes, as well as “Man of No Importance“ (Hollywood Fringe) at the Lillian. July starts with a musical we had originally planned for Fathers Day weekend: “Ionescapade” at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. That will be followed by “9 to 5 – The Musical” at REP East in the middle of the month, and “Legally Blonde – The Musical” at Cabrillo at the end of the month. July will also (hopefully) see us as OperaWorks at CSUN. August is currently completely open due to vacation planning, although we may see a show at the Lawrence Welk Resort in Escondido at the end of the month (depending on price), or at another venue in San Diego.
Continuing the look ahead: September may bring Sarah Ruhl’s “In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play“ at the Production Company/Secret Rose and “Blue Man Group” at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as “God of Carnage” at REP East. October is open, but should the Cabrillo production of “Kiss Me Kate” somewhere, as well as “Dirty Rotten Soundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi. November will bring “Play It Again Sam” at REP East as well as ARTS’s Nottingham Village (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market). The fall should also bring a production of “Carrie – The Musical” by Transfer Theatre. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013/2014 season announcements. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).
Music: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Sinéad O’Connor): “The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance”