With their Equity cards tucked inside their girdles, thank God, and all of Tim Chappel and Lizzie Gardiner's Tony Award-winning costumes — cheerleaders, ostrich heads, Marie Antoinettes — loaded on to the truck, the travelin' Aussie drag queens (well, two drag queens and one sweet transsexual of most classy vintage) have arrived in Chicago. Headed in an exhausted rush to the Auditorium Theatre on Wednesday night, I actually parked my car on top of a snowbank in the last available spot. Man, I cursed this town as I mountaineered on State Street. Never mind throwing another shrimp on some outback barbie, mate. Of that we can only dream. Some of us this frigid March would settle merely for ice confined to cocktails.
Perhaps it's always a good time to shake your groove thing. I was just ready for some hot stuff Wednesday night at the Auditorium Theatre. Warm stuff in a dress, even.
In dim light at least, Mitzi (Wade McCollum), Bernadette (Scott Willis) and Felicia (Bryan West) can heat up any room, even one as colossal as the Auditorium Theatre, built more for mass choirs than three drag queens (well, two drag queens ... oh never mind). No one would confuse the genial, anxious to please "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," which opened on Broadway in 2011 and sort of toddled along without making much money, with the high art of the didgeridoo. This freewheeling, messy, double-entendre- loving, jukebox show makes "Kinky Boots" (its progeny, in some ways) look like "The Grapes of Wrath."
Whereas "Kinky Boots" has original Cyndi Lauper songs, "Priscilla," a kind of down-under "Mamma Mia" in a series of really good frocks, has her classics like "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," not to mention the Madonna classics, the Earth, Wind and Fire classics, the Gloria Gaynor classics and The Weather Girls classics. (Well, classic. It only really rained men for those gals once.) If you grew up in Europe, Canada or Australia, the song choices will make particular sense. They are the ones to which all of the Queen's subjects danced.
Priscilla the bus has shrunk like a greyhound on a diet, but the touring production of the show, produced by Troika Entertainment, compares very well to the Broadway original. I generally am ready to whine and stamp my feet when every last Main Stem sequin does not arrive in our town, but in this instance enough is enough and more than enough has come with. In New York, the rush of spectacle and stimulation actually was altogether too much. Here on the road, far from Times Square, "Priscilla" still conveys the pleasures of excess (the bus still glows pink) without assaulting you relentlessly with the need to have a really socko time. The touring production is just that bit more relaxed, which is a big improvement. The visual fun of "Priscilla" lies almost entirely in the costumes, which are massive, framed creations that are well worth the price of admission just to see their display. Luckily for these producers, the show already closed on Broadway. It is hard to imagine the expense of building these amazing costumes again. And you won't be seeing the like when the show is done locally.
The biggest change, actually, from how this show played in New York is the central role of Tick/Mitzi, whose desire to see his son sparks the trek across the desert that formed the basis of Stephan Elliott's cultish 1994 caper movie. On Broadway, Will Swenson played it famously straight. The wholly different McCollum is an overtly physical actor — he looks at times like he could be a clown in the Cirque du Soleil or a mime or the guy in the painting by Edvard Munch — and his offbeat, multijointed physical performance has the advantage of offering a strong contrast between not just the masculine and the feminine, which is important, but also the performer and the shy man who feels like he is a failure. Willis, playing the role owned by the Australian Tony Sheldon, is warm and honest. And, in the puckish role of Adam/Felicia, West (who understudied this role on Broadway) offers the richest vocals of the three. The ensemble dances its tails off.
Wednesday night at the Auditorium, the lyrics were indistinct, a common problem with hurriedly amplified shows at this acoustically perfect venue. Fortuitously, no one really needs to hear every consonant of the line "Someone left the cake out in the rain," especially when there is a big old cake right there on the stage, and a tired transsexual with her face in the icing.
It struck me at one point of the night that with the world changing so incredibly fast when it comes to gay marriage and the like, shows like these that rely on widespread rural antagonism toward men who see things from a different angle may become rarer or play as period curiosities. If only for now, "Priscilla" is still Queen of the Snowbank City, where winter never ends but a dancing cupcake or six can at least make you feel like its days are numbered.
When: Through March 30
Where: Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway.
Tickets: $28-$85 at 800-982-2787 and broadwayinchicago.com