'Priscilla Queen of the Desert' is an outrageous romp through the Outback

 

Three divas on a bus take a back seat to costumes at Miami’s Arsht Center.

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By Christine Dolen | cdolen@MiamiHerald.com

Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the stage musical version of the 1994 Australian cult movie, is a smorgasbord of eye candy. For sure, the muscular men who play drag divas are fit and, yes, hot.

But what makes Priscilla so easy to watch for a couple of hours is the ever-changing parade of costumes. What Oscar- and Tony-winning designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner have created is like a fashion show on steroids. It’s fun, touching now and then, and the score of familiar disco hits gets the audience chair dancing like crazy.

But Priscilla is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a great Broadway musical.

Playing the Ziff Ballet Opera House at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center through Sunday, Priscilla follows the trek of three acquaintances — performers Tick (drag name Mitzi Mitosis) and Adam (drag name Felicia Jollygoodfellow), and transsexual showgirl Bernadette — from Sydney to remote Alice Springs. Tick’s wife Marion runs a casino and showroom there, and while she’d like her estranged hubby and his pals to perform, she really wants him to reconnect with his 8-year-old son Benji, a kid who doesn’t remember his dad at all.

So Priscilla is really an on-the-road show, a journey marked by adventures and misadventures — and fabulous production numbers.

Traveling aboard a specially outfitted bus that Adam (Bryan West) has dubbed “Priscilla,” the three encounter mechanical troubles, homophobia, violence and, for Bernadette, budding romance with an Aussie named Bob. Happiness awaits at the end of the rainbow trio’s trip, but its predictability doesn’t make it less effective.

At Tuesday’s opening, understudy Chris Klink went on as Tick for an ailing Wade McCollum, delivering a warm performance as a guy whose beckoning past has filled him with confusion, apprehensiveness and longing. His voice and Australian accent are impressive, and he has an easy chemistry with his costars.

West is wonderful as the reckless, opinionated, appealing Adam. His ill-considered foray into an Outback bar, dressed in girl drag and singing Hot Stuff, becomes the prelude to one of the show’s most moving moments.

Scott Willis is consciously ultra-feminine as the mature, newly widowed Bernadette, an old-school performer who finds lip synching vastly superior to Adam’s penchant for singing his own songs. The tone of the budding relationship between Willis’ Bernadette and Joe Hart’s Bob is sweet and just right.

Though Priscilla features a kid cast member as Benji (cute but accent-challenged Shane Davis, who alternates with Will B. in the part), this is in no way a family show. Some of the language is rough, as is the gay-bashing, and as Bob’s mail-order bride Cynthia, Chelsea Zeno plays a stripper wannabe who shoots ping pong balls into the audience — and let’s just say she doesn’t use a paddle.

The eclectic score includes disco faves It’s Raining Men, I Will Survive, I Love the Nightlife, Shake Your Groove Thing, MacArthur Park, Boogie Wonderland and more. However, when the cast is onstage en masse and singing full out, good luck understanding a word over the blast and thunderous thumping of the orchestra.

Other than the bus, which eventually gets decked out with ever-changing LED lights, the touring production’s sets are minimalistic, even cheap-looking at times. It’s clear that the design focus went into the costumes. And in that way, Priscilla pays off again and again. Don’t skip the finale for the mad Miami dash to your car or you’ll miss a visually extravagant ode to all things Australian.

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