Picture this: Men decked out like giant cupcakes are cavorting onstage, each carrying a clear umbrella altered to look like a jellyfish. Given that scene, you can assume either that you’ve stumbled into the world’s most expensive, crazily creative children’s theater production — or that you’ve scored tickets to Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical.
Starting Tuesday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, it’s the latter.
Based on the 1994 Australian cult classic movie, the 2006 stage musical made its way from Sydney to London to Broadway before launching the tour that brings it to Miami. The show is about two drag queens and a transsexual widow who travel aboard a bus they dub Priscilla, journeying from Sydney through the rugged Outback to remote Alice Springs. The reasons are professional, personal and poignant.
But really? Priscilla Queen of the Desert is all about its fashion-show array of stunning costumes.
Designed by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won an Oscar and then a Tony Award for their work, the 500 or so outfits worn in the musical have led costume director Michelle Harrison to dub the show La Cage aux Folles on steroids.”
“This show is massive,” Harrison says. “The costumes take up an entire 53-foot trailer. The wardrobe travels in gondolas [rolling closets], and normally a show has 8 to 20 of them. This one has 40, not including the ones that contain the wigs.”
Getting the three lead actors and their fellow performers into and out of those costumes isn’t routine either. Several costume supervisors travel with the show, but local union dressers are hired in each city on the tour. For a short run like Miami’s Tuesday-through-Sunday gig, the locals barely have time to get used to the frenzied pace of the costume changes before Priscilla moves on. To make sure all goes smoothly, the stars meet with their dressers before the show to explain each change, in order.
“Our tech rehearsals were a nightmare, overwhelming to everyone, including the heads of wardrobe,” says Scott Willis, who plays the transsexual Bernadette. “I talk through absolutely everything, which takes at least a half hour. But I tell them, ‘Just breathe.’ The show goes on, no matter what. Everything that can go wrong has already happened. Sometimes, you just finish putting something on during a scene.”
Bernadette is Willis’ first female character. He’s a dancer and experienced tour performer (his first was 42nd Street in 1985), but the role he has played most often is the polar opposite of his Priscilla character: Santa Claus in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
“Santa’s a different kind of drag — more hair and more padding,” he says, laughing.
Because Bernadette is a transsexual, Willis is always dressed in women’s clothing onstage. But that’s not the case for his costars, Wade McCollum and Bryan West.
McCollum plays Anthony “Tick” Belrose, a guy who performs as Mitzi in a Sydney club. He’s married but separated, and it’s a call from his wife Marion that launches the journey to Alice Springs. West plays Adam Whitely, youngest of the trio, whose drag persona Felicia Jollygoodfellow is deliberately, provocatively outrageous. Both change from female to male to female costumes repeatedly during the show. So offstage, they’re surrounded by dressers and people wielding makeup remover wipes or lipstick, eye shadow and the like. Those dressers? They’re good.
“When I change into the ‘Gumby’ costume, it takes less than 30 seconds to change from being a full boy onstage to going back out in that costume,” McCollum says.
McCollum has worn women’s clothing onstage before, as the title character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife. But for West, donning high heels and platform shoes to play Felicia is a first.
“My calves are a lot stronger now. For the first three weeks, they’d cramp up,” he says.
But he adds that creating a drag diva onstage has been empowering.
“I was nervous about it at first. I wanted to honor it, and I didn’t want it to come off as false. But now drag is like a suit of armor. You feel like a superhero,” West says.
Jim Buff is a South Florida actor, female impersonator and costume designer who performs as Electra. He has seen both the movie and Broadway versions of Priscilla, and he thinks that the key characters serve the bigger story the musical tells.
“I don’t think the show celebrates drag queens so much as it celebrates life,” he says. “It shows that anyone whose life is not quite the norm still has the same issues as everyone else — infidelity, issue over children, issues with their sexuality. The drag queen part is just a vehicle to tell the story through their eyes.”
Priscilla’s score is largely made up of familiar disco-era hits, though West lip synchs an aria from La traviata while decked out in a glittering silver bodysuit as he’s perched in the giant platform shoe atop the bus. As with the hit-parade score of Mamma Mia!, audiences sing, clap and groove along to Don’t Leave Me This Way, I Love the Nightlife, I Will Survive, Boogie Wonderland — well, you get the picture. The cupcake getups and jellyfish umbrellas appear as the actors sing MacArthur Park. Talk about leaving the cake out in the rain.
In the show’s finale, which is (of course) as spectacular as everything that has come before it, every costume is built around something indigenous to Australia. When Bernadette, Felicia and Mitzi stand together in just the right way, they create the iconic Sydney Opera House. And, says Willis, the crowd goes wild, without fail.
“Visually, it’s all so spectacular,” adds McCollum. “Those dresses at the end are remarkable pieces of theatrical engineering. It’s almost condescending to call them costumes.”