Review: A family affair at joyful ‘Priscilla’

The coolest thing happened to me the other night. I went to see a play, and a Pride parade broke out.

In all my years of attending Broadway shows in San Francisco, I have a hard time remembering being part of a crowd so energized, so raucous, and so ready to have themselves a time as the crowd that attended “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” The vibe was so full of euphoria that during intermission, while the men got to experience female-like restroom lines, the women were ready to assist. The unusually short women’s lines prompted some to invite the men into their restroom, which my buddy happily obliged. Yes, it was that kind of “We Are Family” night at the Orpheum.

“Priscilla” is a show that, quite simply, is a celebration of excess. It’s a production that is loaded with color, pageantry, irreverence and about a million innuendos. It’s also a disco hit parade, one that served as a wonderful showcase for the beauty and artistry of the drag performer, shaped nicely by director Simon Philips and choreographer Ross Coleman.

Tick (An empathetic turn by Wade McCollum) has been a drag performer for many years under the name Mitzi Mitosis, and now his wife Marion (a warm Christy Faber), whom he is separated from, is running a casino in Alice Springs, Australia. Marion is trying to convince Tick to come to Alice Springs for two reasons – she needs some entertainment for her business, and their son Benji (Shane Davis) wants to see his dad. With the assistance of transgendered drag veteran Bernadette (a heartwarming performance by Scott Willis), and pissy, young drag upstart Felicia (a sharp-tongued Bryan West), the trio sets off through the desert in a magic bus named “Priscilla.”

In the midst of their travels, they experience frustration, warmth, new love and homophobia.

The show starts off like gangbusters, with a helpful heaping of a fully caffeinated Tina Turner (Nik Alexzander). This visceral Tina kicks and scratches, almost threatening the audience to answer the question “What’s love got to do with it?” It is this phenomenal energy that completely gave the audience the cues that this night would be a night to get wild, get crazy, and have some serious fun.

The show gives plenty of opportunities for the audience to delve into raging fanaticism. Songs like “It’s Raining Men,” “Holiday,” “Like a Virgin,” “I Love the Nightlife,” and the ‘70’s disco anthem “I Will Survive” litter the stage with energy and ferocity. And even though these numbers are the hummable hits that you leave the theatre with, some of the gentler numbers were shaped prettily by the context of the story. Tick’s witty rendition of “I Say a Little Prayer” and later, his gentle Elvis impersonation for his son as they sang “Always on My Mind” were pieces that really were the heart and soul of the show. Throw in a tender arc between Bernadette and helpful mechanic Bob (Joe Hart), and there is plenty of warmth in the midst of the chaos. Despite all of the zaniness and broadness of the overall piece, moments like these are reminders of the fulfilling journeys of self-discovery these characters are on.

Other aspects of the show were equally joyful and just plain crazy. Whether it was Bob’s fiery wife Cynthia (Chelsea Zeno), who showed a knack for the mad skill of showcasing other uses for ping-pong balls, or Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s Tony Award-winning costumes and wild hair pieces, which were loud and proud, there was certainly a heavy dose of spectacle on the stage. And certainly, the big star of the show, the actual bus named “Priscilla,” conceived by Brian Thomson, pretty much did it all – wild lights, wilder colors, and even a big gorgeous high heel that sat right on top.

Many years ago, my mother went with some friends to San Francisco’s Finocchio’s, the legendary female impersonator show that lasted for more than 63 years. I remember her bringing home a full-color program with pictures of the performers. What was striking about that program was the detail and the artistry that goes into this art form. And it’s not just the appearance. As Bernadette explained so eloquently, it’s the nuance of lip-synching each trill in a song, each gesture that was probably done while the song was being recorded, even where the Adam’s Apple needs to be placed for maximum effect.

Being amongst so many who were beside themselves by such sharply skilled drag performers was joyful. I even overheard a woman describe the whole evening as “exhausting.” But the lasting impression I took from the whole show is one that gives everyone a humongous heaping of pride. There may not have been any floats, but it sure as hell felt like what a parade should feel like.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Shorenstein Hayes Nederlander of San Francisco presents “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”
Book By Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Directed by Simon Philips
Choreographed by Ross Coleman
The Word: A fierce celebration of excess, disco and the art of drag.

Mitzi Mitosis (Wade McCollum), Marion (Christy Faber) and Felicia (Bryan West) meet up at Marion's casino in "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Mitzi Mitosis (Wade McCollum), Marion (Christy Faber) and Felicia (Bryan West) meet up at Marion’s casino in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Stars: 4 out of 4
Through Aug. 31st
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $45 – $210
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

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