A Drag-tastic <i>Priscilla, Queen of the Desert</i> Pulls Out All the Stops

Crammed on a bus with a seemingly unlimited supply of champagne, outfits and imagination, it's an adventure for all. Now,isn't high art, but for what it is, it's pretty fantastic.
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While I'm not sure how much it cost to produce the national tour of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, I'd wager that a sizable, of not primary, chunk of the change went into the show's outlandish costumes and towering wigs.

Costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who also designed the costumes for the movie on which the musical is based, pull out all the stops. A parade of eye-poppingly fantastical outfits, often fashioned from found objects such as sandals, beach balls and balloons, strut front-and-center in this crowd-pleaser, which is playing at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre through March 30.

And as the dynamo trio of ladysingers (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West) wail through our favorite gay anthems such as "It's Raining Men" and "I Will Survive," often while floating high above the stage, you can't help but sing along.

But this musical, which was a blazing hit in Australia before it came to the states, is more than just platform shoes, glitter and campy costumes.

There's a big heart under all that frock.

And leading the story of a trio of performers (comprising two effervescent "gender illusionists" and one grand transsexual) on an episodic journey across the outback is Wade McCollum as Tick/Mitzi. As Tick, McCollum plays an overgrown child who realizes that it's time to make peace with his past rather than disappearing into his drag counterpart, Mitzi, when the going gets tough.

Now, I know I've seen the 1994 movie, as I recall several of the now-iconic scenes, such as this one:

And, um, this:

And both of these scenes are recreated (and outrageously re-imagined) for the stage, with the latter resulting in a shower of pingpong balls shooting out at the audience.

I'm serious. And it's amazing.

However, outside of these scenes, I couldn't for the life of me remember the film's dramatic arc. Why exactly was this mismatched trio traveling by bus to some remote Australian city? Well, according to my theater companion who adores the movie, the actual purpose of the trip becomes clear by the film's end. However, in the musical, the purpose is pretty clearly spelled out by the first scene. Which actually makes more sense -- the actual story is the journey getting there rather than the destination. And that's where the comedy, action and fabulous happens.

Stephan Elliot, who adapted his screenplay for the stage with the help of producer Allan Scott, gives us three colorful characters that represent three main genres of drag performing. Mitzi (Tick) is the comedic entertainment, Felicia (Bryan West) is the in-your-face fearless performer, and Bernadette (the statuesque Scott Willis) is the classic queen who has perfected the art of the lip synch having headlined a high-end drag review in her heyday. Natually, Bernadette views herself and den mother, Mitzi as peace keeper and Felicia as fun maker.

Crammed on a bus with a seemingly unlimited supply of champagne, outfits and imagination, it's an adventure for all.

Now, Priscilla isn't high art, but for what it is, it's pretty fantastic.

"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" plays through March 30 at the Auditorium Theatre. More info here.

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