Dallas — For gay men in the mid-90s, the 1994 Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was momentous. There had been many important films on LGBT themes—Maurice, My Beautiful Laundrette, Paris is Burning and My Own Private Idaho were a few in my own experience as a gay man who came out in the early 1990s. Priscilla added to that list with its beautifully told and infectiously entertaining story involving drag queens, show business, family (in more ways than one), a fully dimensional transgender character, finding love later in life, and the importance of being true to oneself.
The musical version, which jettisons he first three words of the movie title to become Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, has all that as well, yet it feels hollow in places. Part of the reason for this is that many of the 1970s and ‘80s songs in the stage version attempt to work like a musical and move the story forward. Tunes like Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Chicago’s “Color My World,” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” propel fabulousness, but like other musicals in which pre-existing songs are shoehorned into a plot (achoo! Mamma Mia!), they don’t do much to propel—or make sense in—the narrative.
Funny thing, though: That doesn’t matter as much in a story with this much sensory overload—in a good way—of ravishing costumes, wigs, choreography and energy. There are, after all, over-the-top drag performances every few scenes.
And in the first locally presented production of the musical at Uptown Players, directed and choreographed by Ann Nieman, the fabulous quotient is off the charts.
The musical Priscilla premiered in Sydney, Australia, in 2006 before making it to London and then Broadway in 2011. The national tour shantayed through Dallas in 2013. Uptown’s production at the Kalita Humphreys Theater is in association with the Broadway producers Nullarbor Productions, as well as MGM On Stage, and uses sets, costumes, wigs and props from the previous commercial versions. Here, those design aspects are adapted for Uptown’s stage and cast by H. Bart McGeehon and Dennis Canright (sets), Suzi Cranford and Jessie Chavez (costumes), Michael Moore and Coy Covington (wigs and makeup, which includes eye-makeup goggles that are understandable considering all the oufit changes), and Jane Quetin (props). Jason Foster handles lights, and Virgil Justice is on sound.
With a book by Stephan Elliott (who directed and wrote the screenplay for the film) and Allan Scott, Priscilla is the name of the bus that two drag queens, Tick (Kelly Groves) and Adam (Blake McIver), along with transgender woman and performer Bernadette (Jack Donahue), purchase and drive from Sydney to the Outback town of Alice Springs so that Tick can meet his young son Benji (Alex Prejean), fathered with nightclub owner Marion (Mary Gilbreath Grim). Along the way, they get into several adventures—as the film title suggests—that include a love interest for Bernadette, Bob (Sonny Franks), whose wife Cynthia (Nana Tatebayashi) has a notable skill.
For me, the biggest failure in a transfer of a song to the musical is Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park,” which is one of the more memorable and funny moments in the movie. When Mitzi finds the perfect use for the song’s iconic line “someone left the cake out in the rain,” it’s a scream that doesn’t have the same impact when the entire song is used.
John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and M’s “Pop Muzik” feel oddly tacked on as well; and one scene in which the drag queens throw very tame shade at each other would not make it out of RuPaul’s library. But the drag and/or chorus numbers of the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men,” Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” and CeCe Peniston’s “Finally” make up for the faults. Additionally, Pat Benatar’s “We Belong,” Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and the American standard “A Fine Romance” are surprisingly affecting.
The nine-piece orchestra, led by Kevin Gunter, sounds good even as orchestral arrangements of disco and dance numbers leave something to be desired.
The trio of Divas—Dana Harper, Laura Lites and Beth Lipton—stabilize the vocals of the entire ensemble and sound fabulous on their own, especially Harper.
As with the design aspects, Uptown has imported several performers, including Tatebayashi and the three leads. McIver, known as a Hollywood child actor from The Little Rascals and Full House, nails the cattiness of Adam/Felicia and brings home the emotion when needed. Donahue has played Bernadette before, and although a transgender actor would have been preferable, his empathy and survival instincts reveal the complicated character that is Bernadette. My favorite performance comes from focused, grounded Groves, who reminds us why Tick is the heart of the show.
There’s so much happening onstage, and so many scene and costume changes, that the occasional clunky scene transition doesn’t matter.
In the bigger scheme, Priscilla is a joyous story of three people going through that special kind of bonding (and maturation) that only comes with a lengthy road trip, a busload of costumes (that flip-flop dress!), and family—however one defines that.