Tick (Wade McCollum) performs "MacArthur Park" as a cake-drunk… (Joan Marcus )
The 1994 movie “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” begins with a glimpse into the bleak lives of three struggling drag performers in Sydney, Australia, who have no reason not to take a low-rent gig deep in the Outback. Yes, their two-week trip, in a decrepit bus they christen “Priscilla," culminates in campy, wigged-out triumph, but not before inflicting them with doubts, disagreements, homophobia, threats to their lives and relentless snarky badinage.
In contrast, the mood of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical,” arriving at the Pantages Theatre at the tail end of a national tour, is cranked up to fabulous at the outset. Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott based their book on Elliott’s screenplay, apparently taking the opportunity to hide its undercurrent of despair with glamour and cheer.
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The opening presents three “divas” (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West) dangling in midair and belting “It’s Raining Men” as our hero/heroine Tick/Mitzi (the goofily endearing Wade McCollum) lip-syncs in drag beneath them. You wonder if the show can possibly top this all-out razzle-dazzle. (In fact it can’t, and knows it can’t — Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s Tony-winning costumes, manically evolving from outlandish to preposterous to outright silly, keep the audience in on the joke.)
Tick, in his dressing room after an act, gets a call from his estranged wife, Marion (Christy Faber), to say it’s time he met their 6-year-old son, Benji (Shane Davis alternating with Will B.) and why doesn’t he bring a few friends to perform at her casino in Alice Springs while he’s at it?
So Tick invites Bernadette (a lovely Scott Willis), a transsexual mourning the death of her lover, and Adam (the impish, winsome Bryan West), who performs leering Madonna homages under the stage name Felicia. They acquire Priscilla during a dance sequence with much high-fiving and playful simulated intercourse (the original New York choreography is “re-created by” Joshua Buscher, just as David Hyslop’s direction is “based on” Simon Phillips’ New York direction).
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Sweet Priscilla! Embodying the show’s faith in the power of a makeover, she boasts an interior as pastel and sparkly as a Barbie camper, where three life-sized dolls groove, trade quips (Bernadette and Felicia, who represent mutually hostile schools of drag performance, dislike each other) and shake martinis.
This show’s most legible message is not, surprisingly, that we should be tolerant of drag queens. If anything, the drag queens are so ascendant that they exert a slightly frightening hegemony. Characters who don't wear giant wigs and shoes look diminished onstage, their heads and feet strangely small, and are subjected to gleeful stereotyping.
Homophobes and bullies may deserve what they get (although the source of the contempt directed at obese, mullet-wearing barkeep Shirley, played by Babs Rubinstein, seems to be not so much her intolerance as her unattractiveness). But it’s unclear why the Asian “mail-order bride” (Chelsea Zeno) of Bernadette’s love interest, Bob (Joe Hart), comes in for such a debasing portrayal.
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The true heart of this jukebox musical lies not in Tick’s journey to fatherhood, or even in the threesome’s growing bond, but, perhaps appropriately, in the jukebox. Bernadette finds comfort at her lover’s funeral by busting out into “Don’t Leave Me This Way”; Tick, losing his mojo after hicks vandalize Priscilla, is restored by “True Colors” — and just wait until he spots a cake someone left out in the rain.
The creators' delight in recontextualizing these familiar songs is so infectious that you cheer when they get it just right and shrug when the fit is a little strained. Ultimately, it’s impossible to resist “Priscilla”’s eagerness to please. Audiences should prepare for a raucous and scenic ride.
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“Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 16. $25 and up. (800) 982-2787 or broadwayla.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.