Friday, June 1, 2018

"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Stephen Elliott & Allan Scott

Charles Peoples III, Rudy Guerrero & Kim Larsen
Once again as Pride Month begins, the wonderfully garish Priscilla bus has pulled into Gateway Theatre full of its fabulously attired drag queens, shirtless twinks, and proudly prancing divas in sparkly wigs.  Yes, Theatre Rhinoceros has reprised the 2017, crowd-favorite Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, bringing back for an encore the goofy kangaroos, 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.  And while the Aussie-originating show from 2006 returns to plop its high heels in flamboyant style onto the tiny Gateway stage sporting the required and expected reams of glitter, chiffon, and spangle, the 2018 version is unfortunately a shadow of the more successful extravaganza a year ago – especially when it comes to vocals and choreography.  That said, the campiness of Priscilla largely survives, providing plenty of chances for loud laughter amid the eye-popping visuals of wigs, dresses, and high heels gone gaga.

As I recounted in my review last year, 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 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 start out exactly as best friends -- 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.  

Charles Peoples III with Ensemble Cast Members
And as a year ago, the flashing-lights, headliner ‘stars’ of this Theatre Rhino show are first and foremost 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 jaw-dropping, 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 exactly is the real show on the tiny, backstage as this cast of fourteen 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 once again this kaleidoscope of kitsch is truly admirable.

And then there is the other star of the show that comes back to reprise her role -- 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.

Rudy Guerrero
Returning also is Rudy Guerrero as Tick, a role for which he won the 2017 Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Principal Actor in Musicals (theatres 100-300 seats).  He still brings genuine heart and authenticity as Tick the prodigal father as well as brings wonderful swish and swagger as his drag half, Mitzi. 

Charles Peoples III & Phaedra Tillery
Joining him in another reprise role is Charles Peoples III as the sassy, sexy, and oft downright scurrilous Adam/Felicia.  This Felicia has not lost her slender body that seems to have no skeleton within it -- so rubbery flexible does she move -- nor her face full of sparkly, black eyebrows that gives way to a thousand, fantastic expressions. 

This year with these two returnees on the journey through the barren, Australian desert is Kim Larsen as Bernadette, the older transsexual and grande dame, always dressed as a matronly woman in a Ladies Home Journal layout.  Time and again, Bernadette gets to use exquisite deadpan to deliver some of the night’s best lines like “I don’t need to pack ... All my bags are under my eyes” or “Is it true when you were born the doctor took one look and slapped your mother?” 

Charles Peoples III, Rudy Guerrero & Kim Larsen
As I said last year, when these three queens and traveling companions join together as a trio (as in “The Journey” and “True Colors”), they may lack the combined vocal excellence the songs truly require, but they tend to make it up in a style that makes them a unit fun to watch.

That inability to provide the vocal power to the twenty-five-plus hit songs of the 1980s cuts across most of this cast in 2018.  Unlike a year ago, key parts are sorely lacking vocally, including the three Divas (who provide much of the back-up music for the lip-singing drag queens) and Miss Understanding (who has a chance to bring the house down in “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” but does not come close to doing so in this production).  Full chorus numbers are also often weak in volume, accuracy, and pizzazz, with not only the vocals but also the choreography of AeJay Mitchell missing the target in number after number.  (Last year, by comparison, kudos galore showered on AeJay Mitchell’s  clever, well-coordinated, and highly varied choreography; but this year, cast members often look clumsy and insecure in trying to deliver what appear to be much simpler and less impressively designed movements.)

While some of the potentially funniest moments fall flatter then they should (e.g., a feat with Ping Pong balls by one crazy-headed dancer that normally is a show-stopper but in this show, is just silly at best), at least one expected moment does not disappoint at all.  Charles Peoples as Felicia once again draws the night’s most sustained applause for an outrageously performed lip-synch of a recorded “Sempre Libera” (La traviata) while sitting high above in a beaded turban and silver gown, astride Priscilla’s roof-situated, pink slipper. 

And not to be over-looked is the third returnee in the same role, Cameron Weston as the moon-struck mechanic Bob, who finds among these traveling, three queens a long-lost love from his days as a soldier in Vietnam.  Mr. Weston’s Bob is yet again extremely likeable and down-to-earth.  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.” 

Finally, a shout-out also goes to young Cameron Zener whose eight-year-old Benji (son of Tick) is a delight and a heart-warmer.  He and Tick score one of the current show’s best-delivered numbers when they join in a duet of “I Say a Little Prayer,” less for the singing but more for the magnetism generated between a boy and his long-absent dad.

Even if in my opinion the 2018 Theatre Rhino reprise of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is not overall as good as the 2017 mounting, there is no denying that the opening night audience of many friends, family, and loyal Rhino-fans were having a helluva good time.  As the run continues, I imagine some of the issues I saw will be resolved (such as a sound system that did not perform consistently, making matters worse for the performers).  And for any first-timers seeing Priscilla on stage, Theatre Rhinoceros’s outlandish trek across the Aussie Outlands will definitely provide an eyeful of glittering craziness that makes the evening fun and frivolous.

Rating: 3 E

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert continues through June 30, 2018 as a production by Theatre Rhinoceros at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credits: David Wilson

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