An evening at the The Pantages in Los Angeles for the touring production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is exactly what one would think: an evening of camp, of glamor, of sequins and catty remarks, of laughter and tears. It's everything being around drag queens really is. And I should know.
In the early 1980s I fell in to the Orange County, CA drag world. Soon, I was performing as Better Midler at the DOK West in Garden Grove, CA. I became involved with the Imperial Court System (a community service organization comprised of drag queens and kings, one of the oldest in the gay community). Most of my friends were involved with the shows or they lifestyle and each week we'd plan numbers, find people to make the costumes we need, go to the garment district in Los Angeles for fabric, find the right shoes in the right size (there was no online then), wigs, props...oh, where will I get a wheelchair for my Midler finale? Is Dennis' Ann Margaret dress going to be finished? Tavio's Cher bugle-bead head-dress? Does the DJ have the right album, does he know to mix the song at this point? Where do I get eyelashes at this hour. I've run in a grocery store in full drag to get nylons (the egg ones used to work great, or control top) and taken friends to Knott's Berry Farm in drag just for fun. To this day, just a week ago, my friend Dennis was rehearsing for the Orange County Coronation (part of the aforementioned court) right here in my living room, Cyndi Lauper's Sex Is In the Heels blasting as he paraded around in shorts and red high-heeled leather waist-high kinky boots. I have lived Priscilla for decades.
And that's why the movie resonated for so many, gay and non gay, drag and non drag, alike. It made the experience what it is, a human one, about the people, not the makeup, about the emotions, not the numbers, and about how it all comes together under a bright light and there's no problem a little eyeliner and mascara can't fix. And it was about families of all types, the three queens or the wife and son one never knew. Again, as in real life. Drag queens form families. They even take the names of their mentors...the house of St. James, or Sinclair or LeBaisa or whatever the names.
And just as the movie hit a home run, so does the play, but in a very different way. The movie allows nuance, allows subtle moments even in the midst of all the grandeur be it nature or costuming. The play relies upon the broadness and grandeur, and mixes in over 20 pop songs from yesteryear and today to take the place of dialogue. It makes for number after number, nonstop sequins and rousing good times.
Yes, the story of three different drag queens, Bernadette, Mitzi and Felicia, all off on a cross-country adventure to do a show (and, secretly, meet a wife and child of Mitzi's). Bernadette, an aging showgirl who has had "the change" (she's a transexual), Felicia, the wild young, pretty and unpredictable one and Mitzi, the organizer of the trip with a big secret. It follows their adventures, including the show for the Aboriginals when the bus breaks down and the picking up of the very nice mechanic Bob along the way. Homophobia still makes an appearance in several forms, and ultimately love, redemption and disco win the day. Wade McCollum, Scott Willis and Bryan West are perfect as the trio, but Scott Willis' Bernadette remains the center source of reason and stability in a drag world gone mad.
And while the subtle moments or harsher realities of the movie may be softened here, they're not missed because again, this is more of the road show of the movie. It's not a great dramatic work, it's not supposed to be, it's lots of men in dresses having a ball.
And that means the audience has a spectacular time as well. The star-studded opening at the Pantages left no one wanting for more and most left singing "It's Raining Men."
The play runs through June 16th in Los Angeles.