Story by Kevin Shaw | photos by Carla McDonald
Back in the spring of 2016 when all of the Memphis theatres announced their 2016-2017 upcoming seasons, one show stood out to me amongst all the rest—Playhouse on the Square’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert! Why? Because I loved the 1994 movie more than I could have ever imagined. The songs were fabulous! The costumes were fabulous! Guy Pearce was fabulous! (I can’t tell you the devastation I experienced soon afterward when I discovered that Mr. Pearce, the actor, was actually straight—still crushes me to this day…) In short, of all the movies that have recently been recreated into big-scale stage musicals, this seemed to be one of the most logical choices. The show opened on Broadway in the spring of 2011 and ran for just over a year. To be honest, I was a bit surprised that it didn’t run longer, but I hadn’t seen the stage version until this past weekend at Playhouse on the Square.
For those of you who have not properly punched your “gay card” yet, the show is about two drag queens and a transgender woman who hop on a tour bus (nicknamed Priscilla) in Sydney, Australia and drive three weeks across the desert to Alice Springs so that one of the queens (Tick) can meet his estranged wife (Marion) and rarely seen son (Benjamin). Along the way, they meet intimidating Aboriginal Australians, encounter homophobia and physical attacks from uneducated country folk and their bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere (a very similar experience to driving to West Memphis). Scattered throughout this journey are some of the best gay disco dance anthems of all time—“It’s Raining Men,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” “Go West,” “I Love the Nightlife,” “I Will Survive,” “Shake Your Groove Thing,” “Hot Stuff,” and “Boogie Wonderland.” The three friends, who represent all three stages of LGBTQ life (Youth, Middle Age and Senior), love and hate each other in a way that only three queens can on a pink bus through the outback. Ultimately, though it’s a story about self-acceptance, loving and being loved by others.
The challenge of transferring this story to the stage is not a small one (when’s the last time you saw a bus on a stage?). The story takes you into gay bars, dingy bars, hot deserts, inside a bus, outside a bus, on top of a bus and ends in a casino mixed with a buttload of outrageous drag costumes. It’s an enormous feat and Playhouse on the Square’s production almost pulls it off. Perhaps due to blowing out the budget on costumes (designed by Kathleen R. Kovarik) which are just as fab/similar to the movie, technically, the show never reaches the campy cliché of “more is more.” I understand the creative dichotomy of trying to convey “drag queen fabulous” in the middle of a dry, brown, barren desert, but that’s the accepted challenge when this show is produced. This show can’t decide which “world” it wants to live in, so it safely puts one foot in and one foot out of both worlds. When it was time to be fabulous, I wanted decadent gayness shooting out of the wings, the ceiling and the walls. I wanted that bus to literally turn pink, instead of just having an anemic pink light on it that barely shown through. I wanted that music blaring while dance bar lights rotated uncontrollably out in the audience. Music is great because of the memories it summons. These songs are great because of our memories of where we were when we fell in love with them—probably in a dance club. This is a show that beckons the audience to dance with the cast and that happened—a little bit. On the flipside, in those moments when the queens were stuck out in the desert trying to still put on a show, I wanted that contrast between glamour and sand to be even more pronounced. The painted wings never said glam or sand at any time—just safe. Having said all that though, the bus worked surprisingly well. Although there wasn’t enough room to stage a full-length bus, this bus turned 360 degrees allowing you to see the inside and outside and provided enough room to be a diva on top. Finally, I must say that I expected more from a professional theatre in 2017 when it comes to scene changes. For me, there’s no bigger distraction than seeing several stagehands scurry onstage multiple times to move scenery that isn’t easy to move. It’s already a tall enough order asking me to transport myself to the desert outback, but do I have to also see strangers running around wearing headsets trying to be inconspicuous too? Trust me—it’s conspicuous.
While the focus of the plot is squared mainly on the three queens (Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette), the supporting cast fully embraced their main job responsibility which was to exude fun. From top to bottom (ahem), this cast is having a ball which makes watching them all the more delicious. Although there were several repetitive dance moves used throughout the show, the ensemble gave it their all with all the energy they could muster. Outshining the rest of the ensemble though, was Diva, Claire D. Kolheim. Her rendition of “I Will Survive” needs to be released on iTunes sooner rather than later. Bruce Huffman (Adam/Felicia), in the Guy Pearce role from the movie, was appropriately catty, self-absorbed and sexy. Daniel Gonzalez (Tick/Mitzi) successfully conveyed the wayward husband/father who pulled at your heartstrings especially when singing “Always on My Mind,” but the soul of the show was personified in David Foster’s exquisite portrayal of Bernadette, the aging transgender woman who has seen and done it all. Foster’s Bernadette was perfect in her grace, wisdom and longing for a better world (for herself and her community). She reluctantly goes on this journey and is richly rewarded for having done so in the end. Brava!
All in all, this is not the perfect stage musical. The transitions from song to song are not organic and felt rushed. The emotions seemed contrived and over the top. In many ways, this show is a drag show for people who have never been to a drag show. Considering the surprising number of older, heterosexual couples in the audience though, the atmosphere was definitely more “festive” than it could have been. For the queens in the audience, they seemed to be proudly accepting. More than once, an audience member’s hand went into the air waving to the music. For them, it was church. Not surprisingly, this show sings to the choir, but probably produces few converts.
Now through July 9th at Playhouse on the Square