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Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at Tempe's Gammage -- Can We Just Say "Wow"?

The setup: The traditional info about source material or theater history will not do justice to the extravagant stage musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. So, to build the necessary foundation, here's some trivia not included in the press packet:

  1. It's allegedly just one of those show-biz coincidences that the films The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, both of which follow three drag queens (or two drag queens and a singing, dancing transsexual) cross-country in a vehicle that breaks down where small-town locals threaten their personal safety, were in production at the same time.
  2. See also: La Cage aux Folles from Phoenix Theatre Tastes as Good as It Looks

  3. The dance costume in the stage Priscilla's finale that looks like a pink air filter for a motor vehicle under the Tin Man's hat represents the flower of the eucalyptus tree and the fruit or "gumnut" that develops from it -- just a wee part of a delightfully over-the-top salute to the homeland of an extremely 'stralian show.
  4. If you realize that costume co-designer Lizzy Gardiner is the one who made the Amex Gold Card dress to wear to the 1995 Academy Awards, you've identified the most wonderful thing about this musical. And the oh-em-gee outfits are sufficiently wonderful for anyone, but they're not the only high point.

The execution: Wow. Wow. Okay, this is a jukebox musical, but, like Sister Act, it's based on a successful film, and unlike Sister Act, whose original score was written just for its stage version, Priscilla incorporates the classic pop songs (such as "Go West," "I Love the Nightlife," "Shake Your Groove Thing," and "I Will Survive") that went so far to make the film successful. Then, to make us more insanely happy, the playwrights added more chartbusters, including but not limited to "It's Raining Men," "Pop Muzik," "True Colors," "Material Girl," "Hot Stuff," "MacArthur Park," "What's Love Got to Do With It," "Like a Prayer," "We Belong," "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," "I Say a Little Prayer," and "Don't Leave Me This Way" (which I have to mention because the accompanying action is a funeral. A funeral! All right, a funeral full of crossdressers including girl Elvis and boy Black Swan).

Not only will people of a certain age forgive Madonna and Donna Summer any number of grudges for how gorgeous and sassy their hits sound in this show, we heard a gentleman of about 85 or 90 praising the music after Tuesday's opening. I love much of the work of new musical theater composers, but bringing audiences together like this is worth throwing a few royalties back to older songwriters, too.

The functional, smoothly moving set pieces are rather astonishing, especially the rehabbed school bus, Priscilla, whose interior does indeed remind one of a "Barbie camper van" (as the dialogue describes it) and whose exterior turns into the Fremont Street Experience from time to time. The amount of Mylar is undoubtedly record-breaking. The variety of things (e.g., beer kegs, slot machines) that turn into sorely needed makeup tables at regular intervals is mind-blowing.

The script's received some criticism for being lightweight. But anything that teaches you that "(You Were) Always on My Mind" was covered by Elvis is a cornerstone of cultural literacy. More than that, though, Priscilla drives home the arguably subtle point that not all people who impersonate women are alike, any more than all gay men impersonate women or all people in general are alike. Not just attitudes and behavior, but sexuality and self-presentation themselves are ultimately fluid, diverse, and okay in the world of the play, as they are in the natural world.

Dismounting the ideological high horse, I have to say the singing, the dancing, the luscious abs, and the sheer joy of the cast are super-life-affirming. If you can't sleep, have lost your appetite, or have just been wanting to stab a lot of people in the head like the T1000 as John Connor's foster mom Janelle, this production will at least temporarily set you right.

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The stage Priscilla is not as raunchy as the film but does have a lot of profanity. ASU Gammage recommends the show for teenagers and acknowledges that some scenes could be inappropriate for younger children.

Because I'm awful, I like to tell parents that just because your children ask questions, you don't have to answer them. Let them learn some of this stuff on the streets. But I don't actually support traumatizing anyone, and there is a bit of violence and some potentially confusing implied use of a vagina in this show . . . In any case, it turns out there's a content guide tab for each of the venue's shows that's really helpful for anyone who just has no idea what a particular play is "about."

The verdict: Apparently, this stop on Priscilla's first U.S. tour is selling quite well and seats up close are hard to come by, so you might miss some of the amazing detail of the sets and costumes: Barbie dolls stapled to the bus, rubber ducks and trolls nestling in the wigs, etc. But you should still attend, because A) it's all so much bigger than life, it'll still make a lasting impression, and B) as My Friend the Drama Teacher said, there's so much going on you can't catch all of it anyway, no matter where you're sitting. So enjoy an overview now and plan ahead for better seats next time it comes through. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert continues through Sunday, September 22, at Gammage Auditorium, 1200 South Forest Avenue in Tempe. Select tickets here or call 800-982-2787. Admission starts at $20.

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