Saturday, June 3, 2017

"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Stephen Elliott & Allan Scott

Diogo Zavadzki, Charles Peoples III & Derek Miller
It’s Pride 2017 in San Francisco; and what better way to celebrate than with fabulously attired drag queens, shirtless twinks, singing divas in sparkly wigs, and a garishly decorated school bus named Priscilla?  Oh, and there are kangaroos, the Village People, disco-dancing dandies, and pop music made famous by everyone from Cyndi Lauper and Burt Bacharach to John Denver, Diana Ross, Petula Clark, and Donna Summer.  The juke-box musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Musical -- originating from Sydney in 2006 before making its way around the world with successful, award-winning stops in London and New York – plops its high heels in grand style onto the tiny stage at Eureka Theatre sporting reams of glitter, chiffon, and spangles in a production big in heart and galactic in campy fun by the oldest LGBT theatre in San Francisco, Theatre Rhinoceros. 

The book by Stephen Elliot and Allan Scott (adapted from Elliot’s cult-and-gay-favorite, 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is a story about search for family and companionship.  But this tale is told through the eyes of three stage performers like the hinterlands of Australia (where they are heading) has never seen -- an aging transgender woman named Bernadette and once known as Ralph; a young, show-off drag queen named Felicia but rarely addressed as Adam; and Tick, a married (to a woman) drag star Mitzi Mitosis with an eight-year-old son he has never met (yet). 

The three set out on a long, hot trip through the outback on their broken-down, but fantastically decorated bus with its pink slipper on the roof – all to help out Tick’s wife and her struggling nightclub in the middle of the Aussie desert.  Along the way, the queens – who do not exactly start out as best friends all -- encounter the likes of wide-eyed townsfolk in country bars who leave hateful calling cards painted on Priscilla and a life-saving mechanic named Bob whose attention soon shifts from his current mail-order bride to a certain transgender lady with glued-on eyelashes winking his way.   

As director of this Theatre Rhino extravaganza-gone-bonkers, John Fisher has left no corn un-shucked to ensure that gaudy glamour, high-stepping hilarity, and pun-packed playfulness rule the stage.  Yet at the same time, he has guaranteed that the tongue-in-cheek campiness never takes over to the degree that the heart and soul of the real story of Priscilla is over-shadowed.  Under his orchestration of this script and this cast, these three queens face head-on their nagging, life-long self-doubts as two gays and a transgender, confront unabashedly the homophobia and hate thrust upon them, and find routes to love where no map exists to show them the way.  In 2017 America, their justified fear and their needed courage are stories more relevant than ever; and Mr. Fisher does not short-change those messages in order just to get a few more laughs.

Derek Miller, Rudy Guerrero & Charles Peoples III
In this Rhino production, the flashing-lights headliner as ‘the stars’ must go to Costumier Robert Horek and Headdress Designer Glenn Krumbholz (with further costume designs by Larry Jean, Daisy Neske, and Cindy Preiado).  Words cannot begin to describe the eye-popping, guffaw-producing array of costumes that parade by the scores across the stage, with changes occurring so quickly at times that the mind boggles what the show on the tiny backstage of the Eureka must be as this cast of seventeen goes from Vegas-dressed divas to scantily clad boys in cutoffs (and little else) to elaborate gowns of every hue and dresses made of flip-flops (with cowboys/girls and funeral-attired mourners thrown in for variety).  Wigs rise high that are full of swans, Easter eggs, flower bouquets worthy of a benefit dinner table, paint buckets, and who-knows-what-else.  Any one who has ever seen a screen or stage version of Priscilla would hope for nothing less, but for The Rhino to pull off this kaleidoscope of kitsch is truly magnificent.

Rudy Guerrero, Charles Peoples III & Darryl V. Jones
And then there is the other star of the show, the bus named Priscilla.  Gilbert Johnson’s crème-de-la-crème of a set design is boxy and pink on the outside but rotates to reveal an interior that bustles to the brim with boas, bows, beads, and bangles along with everything from seahorses to Christmas garland and, of course, plenty of martini glasses.

While the almost thirty hits of the ‘70s and ‘80s are not all delivered with the solo power and finesse one might hope, they are all certainly delivered with much enthusiasm, flair, fun, and often heart.  When in full ensemble, the cast is particularly strong in voice and harmony under the able musical direction of Daniel Feyer.  With clever and well-coordinated choreography by AeJay Mitchell that ranges from disco to Vegas to hoedown and employs every possible hand movement, hip thrust, and body twist possible, this ensemble struts its stuff to wow an adoring audience in numbers like “It’s Raining Men,” “Color My World,” and “I Will Survive.” 

Some of the best singing consistently comes from three Divas (Anna L. Joham, Mary Kalita, and Niclole Thordsen) who blend beautifully in their platinum-metallic wigs as they often provide the background music for lip-synching drag queens.  Time and again they ferociously sell a number with spunk and spit while also doing what all good back-ups do – look glamorous and move in parallel sway.

Rudy Guerrero
As Tick, Rudy Guerrero sounds so down-under in accent that it is hard to believe he is not Aussie-born.  He brings genuine authenticity to Tick and wonderful swish and swagger to Mitzi.  To portray Adam/Felicia, Charles Peoples III uses a slender body that seems to have no skeleton within it -- so rubbery flexible does he move -- and a face full of sparkly, black eyebrows that gives way to a thousand, fantastic expressions.  And with a face whose cheeks and deep-set eyes broadcast Bernadette’s absolute lust for life, Darryl V. Jones particularly sets the bar high in a performance where Bernadette deadpan delivers some of the night’s best lines (“I don’t need to pack ... All my bags are under my eyes”) and sings with a voice that resonates in a deep, still manner to reveal depth of soul and life-experience.  When these three queens and traveling companions join together as a trio (as in “The Journey”  and “True Colors”), they lack the combined vocal excellence of the three Divas; but they tend to make it up in a style that makes them a unit fun to watch.

Stephen Kanaski
Other, more silhouetted performances certainly have their moments of whiz-bang.  In a sleek, black-sequined dress, Stephen Kanaski uses his Tina-Turner-rough, seductive voice to sell the sex and raise the roof in “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”  As in most productions of this musical, Crystal Liu as Cynthia stops the show when she performs a feat with Ping-Pong balls that sends the audience into a tizzy (while also singing in electronic voice and robotic manner M’s “Pop Muzik”).  And returning our attention to Felicia (now in a beaded turban and silver gown), Charles Peoples draws the night’s most sustained applause for an outrageously performed lip-synch astride Priscilla’s roof-situated, pink slipper of a recorded “Sempre Libera” (La traviata).

Darryl V. Jones & Cameron Weston
Not to be over-looked in the kudos department is Cameron Weston as the moon-struck mechanic Bob who finds himself finding a long-lost love from his youth amongst these traveling, three queens.  Mr. Weston’s Bob is so likeable it almost hurts.  There is a genuineness that exudes his portrayal; and while his singing voice is also not the strongest, it is true in its message in numbers like the reprise of “A Fine Romance.”  A shout-out also goes to young Kyle Vetter whose eight-year-old Benji has a lot to teach some of the adult bigots in his and our worlds.

The Cast of The Rhino's Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
From the exiting smiles on every face and the volume of collective chatter, there is no doubt that virtually every person seeing Theatre Rhino’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is going to be the best marketing tool possible for this month-long run.  There is nothing better than a show exceeding on its small stage an audience’s incoming expectations that it will tough to match the fun, camp, and sheer fabulousness of its much-larger predecessors on other world stages; but far exceed expectations is exactly what Theatre Rhino did at least for this one, very satisfied member.

Rating: 4 E

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert continues through July 1, 2017 in production by Theatre Rhinoceros at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credits: David Wilson

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