Center, left to right: Wade McCollum, Scott Willis, Bryan West and company in the number “I Will Survive” during “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts
If you enjoyed “La Cage aux Folles” and its cinematic offshoot, “The Birdcage,” then you’ll really rock out to “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” now enjoying a brief engagement at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
“Priscilla,” as viewers of the 1994 movie of that title will recall, is a broken-down bus bearing two drag queens and a transsexual performer across the Australian outback to a club date in Alice Springs, virtually in the middle of nowhere. The trek is booked to give one of the dragsters a chance to meet his son — whom he fathered during a brief moment of heterosexuality eight years before (a plot element borrowed from “La Cage”/”Birdcage”).
The story, however, is incidental. The real stars of the show are the outrageously colorful costumes, designed by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner — huge head pieces, glittering garments — which overshadow any “normal” moments the production might offer. Seldom has a show been so elegantly top-heavy.
Then there is the musical score, a potpourri of pop hits from the past few decades (“What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “I Will Survive”). It’s fortunate that most of the songs are familiar, since music director Brent Frederick’s enthusiastic orchestra effectively drowns out the lyrics on most numbers.
When things finally quiet down, we meet the three principals — Tick (Wade McCollum), anxious about seeing his son for the first time; Adam (Bryan West), so flammable he makes the other two appear straight; and Bernadette (Scott Willis), the transgendered character who never appears out of drag until the curtain call.
McCollum lends a touch of heart and humanity to the show, camping it up one minute and somberly reflecting the next. The eventual reunion with his boy (Shane Davis and Will B., alternating) is particularly affecting, and his electric version of “MacArthur Park” is among the night’s real highlights.
West stretches his flaming butterfly-in-heat character to what becomes the breaking point in an unsettling sequence involving macho goons in the depths of the desert. His solo rendition of “Sempre Libera,” backed by three chorines billed as “Divas,” is a particular treat.
It’s the transsexual character, Bernadette, who breathes the most life into the show. Willis plays the role so genuinely feminine that we empathize with him when he falls for a bearded Aussie (Joe Hart) who’s down to earth and clearly straight.
Director Simon Philips has created a maelstrom of sound and color calculated to capture and hold the audience’s attention, while introducing the plot segments as “reality reliefs.” Ross Coleman’s choreography is properly dazzling, with the Divas making their angelic entrances from above the stage.
“Priscilla Queen of the Desert” is a cacophony of color bolstered by some hit songs of the past, into which some true characterization manages to intrude between the risque punch lines. It’s a sumptuous desert served with camp and panache at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.