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Review: 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' is a dazzling drag

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Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical

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Like a tropical songbird, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Musical" swoops in with beautiful plumage and a tuneful melody. The problem with tropical songbirds, however, is they suck at meaningful conversation.

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When the original film hit the theaters in 1994, it was met with fairly mixed reviews. The film about three drag queens (well, two drag queens and a transsexual) traveling the Australian outback in a brightly colored bus was criticized for lacking the heart that was seemingly thrown in by sheer obligation. In contrast, at least “To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar,” (the 1995 American film also featuring a plot about three drag queens traveling across the country) was far more heartfelt and genuine, with characters you could actually cheer for.

However, Priscilla grew with fans, creating a cult following and a boa-clad hoard of devoted followers. The eventual translation from film to musical was very faithful to the film, complete with lack of substance, and with the emphasis firmly placed on amazing costumes. If you're a fan of Priscilla the movie, then you'll enjoy the musical. But if you're looking for something with substance, the musical's a bit of a drag.

The national touring production of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” opened in Denver at the Buell Theatre to lots of screaming fans and adoring public. The cast is strong, lead by Wade McCollum, Brian West and Scott Willis as the three performers that get a gig and begin the trek across the Australian outback in an LED-covered bus named Priscilla. The capable actors certainly made the most of what they were given, doing their best to inject as much warmth and believability as they could muster. Unfortunately it’s the book that fails them, lacking in substance without giving anyone much of a chance to actually care about these characters.

The music may be on key, but it falls flat when it comes to advancing the plot. Saturated with familiar favorites across three decades of American pop, the choice of tunes seemed aimed more at plucking nostalgic heartstrings than telling a story. Witness a scene where an estranged father and his son break into an uneven medley of “Always on My Mind” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” We're left with a head tilt, trying to decipher a deeper meaning in the duet that doesn't exist.

It also didn’t help that the notoriously difficult sound in the Buell theatre was particularly rough on opening night, as most of the lyrics and dialogue came out garbled and hard to understand. Even when the actors weren't competing with the band, it was hard to hear anything that was spoken, with dialogue so soft that you had to strain to hear a thing.

However, if you can separate yourself from the difficulties with the show and embrace it for what it really is, then it’s a great deal of fun. The Tony Award-winning costumes (Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner) are an eye-popping cavalcade of sequins, feathers, boas and terrifyingly huge platform shoes. The set (Brian Thomson) explodes with millions of LED lights, flying actors and plenty of vibrant colors.

And that’s what you truly want to see with this production. Enjoy the interminable energy of an ensemble that literally never stops dancing and the creative brilliance of some insanely talented designers and you will have a wonderful time during your visit with this stunning songbird. Just don't be upset when plumage is plucked and your pretty peacock turns out to be just another turkey.

Denver Center Attractions Presents:
Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the Musical

Playing through September 15
At the Buell Theatre
Tickets start at $25
Call (303) 893-4100
or online at www.denvercenter.org

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