Theater Review

Lively actors can’t save this ponderous ‘Priscilla’

CorrespondentMay 1, 2013 



There’s a boatload of terrific performers putting everything they’ve got into the touring production of the musical, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Too bad the end product is such a bloated, lumbering jumble.

Like the 1994 independent film, the musical follows the picaresque journey of two drag queens (Tick and Adam) and a former female impersonator (now transsexual Bernadette) across the Australian outback in a broken-down bus they’ve named Priscilla. They are headed to Alice Springs for Tick to meet his 8-year-old son for the first time, Adam to fulfill his crazy dream of doing drag atop Ayers Rock and Bernadette to get over a recent lover’s death.

The film has a few wild drag numbers set to disco songs, but the emphasis is on the characters’ lives and their desire for acceptance. Although the musical has some engaging character-driven moments, it’s mostly a series of overblown production numbers (28 in all), performed with such relentless energy (and at painfully loud volumes) that they become tiresome.

The songs, a range of hits by Madonna, the Village People, Gloria Gaynor and others, are awkwardly grafted onto the story. The plot falters constantly because many witty moments from the film are bogged down with stage-filling numbers: painting the bus becomes a whirl of dancing paintbrushes (“Colour My World”); a pop-song reference becomes a parade of umbrella-wielding layer cakes (“MacArthur Park”).

Many of the astounding costumes in the film from designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner are recreated here, and Brian Thomson’s sets are spectacularly glitzy and technologically impressive. But the visuals, including characters repeatedly being flown in from above, bury the storyline with overkill.

Tuesday night’s audience rightly cheered the cast, including the ensemble that made jaw-dropping quick changes into strippers, waiters, roughnecks and casino denizens. Wade McCollum’s Tick had moving depth, Bryan West’s Adam wicked panache and Scott Willis’ Bernadette sophisticated comic timing. Joe Hart, as auto mechanic Bob, made his falling for Bernadette charmingly believable.

Those who love the film will likely regret the excess, and those unfamiliar probably will wonder about the film’s merits. The show’s strong language and sexually explicit situations add further limits to its appeal. And some may find that one act is enough, as happened Tuesday night.



What: “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Musical” national tour

Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $20-$100

Info: 919-680-2787 or

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