(Review by Andrew J. Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.)
The 1994 Australian independent film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” telling the story of two drag queens and a transgender woman as they trek across the desert towards a drag-show cabaret gig, was an unexpected success.
Mixing comedy, drama, camp, and a sympathetic portrayal of LGBTQ characters (an uncommon occurrence in those days), the movie became a cult classic, and was particularly heralded for its unique, quirky costumes, which went on to win an Academy Award.
In 2006, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” — a jukebox musical based on the movie — premiered in Sidney, eventually moving to London’s West End and then to Broadway. Much of the original movie’s team was actually involved in the musical’s production, with writer/director Stephan Elliott adapting the script alongside co-writer Allan Scott, and costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner going on to add a Tony Award to their Oscar win.
All of this is to say that to laud the costumes of Zach Theatre’s new production of “Priscilla” (playing through Oct. 30) is not to damn it with faint praise. Based in part on the original Broadway designs, Barry Doss’ extravagant, campy, candy-colored costumes steal the show, rightly earning their own applause breaks throughout.
The show’s other design elements—Stanley A. Meyer and Jason M. Curtis’ sets, designed in large part around a fully realized mini-bus (the titular “Priscilla”), Matthew Webb’s dancing, discotheque lights, and Serret Jensen’s transformative, gender-bending hair and makeup—aid and abet the over-the-top costumes, creating a visual feast that matches the show’s high humor and heart.
Director Abe Reybold’s vision of “Priscilla” is one of motion. Characters rarely stand still, even when they aren’t breaking into song, and the staging thus keeps pace with the rapid clip of the text.
The show’s music will be intimately familiar to many audience members, as the songs are taken from 70s and 80s disco and pop hits that fit into the oeuvre of the type of music that the show’s drag queens perform to in their show.
Although many times the songs in jukebox musicals can come across as rather forced, in “Priscilla” the music works because the creators were able to pick and choose from more than one artist/genre/style, allowing them to select songs (like Cindy Lauper’s “True Colors,” Pat Benatar’s “We Belong,” and a mashup of Elvis Presley and the Pet Shop Boys’ versions of “You Were Always On My Mind”) that hold particular emotional and lyrical resonance for the dramatic moments at hand.
All of this would be pretty set dressing, of course, without a talented cast behind the wheel of “Priscilla,” and Zach’s production has just that. Josh Denning is a charming, likable, if somewhat directionless leading man as Tik/Mitzi, while Anthony Vincent Toudjarov is pure manic energy and oddly charming obnoxiousness as the much more outgoing Adam/Felica. Jack Donahue, as Bernadette, provides a wise, warm, knowing, and wholly sympathetic portrayal of a slightly older transgender woman, positively stealing the show every time he is on stage.
All in all, Zach Theatre’s “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” provides more camp than it does any kind of groundbreaking portrayal of LGBTQ issues, but it is fun, lively, good-hearted, and a rollicking good time.
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