“Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

If you ever wondered why Celebration Theatre is called Celebration Theatre, go see Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical, the current occupant of the stage at the corner of Lexington Avenue and McCadden Place, and you’ll understand: there’s a party going on at every performance, and it’s a glorious, exuberant, over-the-top celebration of all things that are, well, over-the-top.

But get your tickets quickly, as this show – justifiably – sold out its entire run before Opening Night, and has tacked on an extension to April 15, which apparently is also selling like hotcakes.

As it happens, I’m one of the three people in Los Angeles who never saw the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert, on which the musical is based, so all I knew going in was that the story took place in Australia, it involved drag queens, and there was something about a bus. Fortunately, you don’t need to know any more, as director Jessica Hanna, a splendid cast, and a score comprised of hit tunes from the past thirty years make the story clear and involving.

L-R: Tad Coughenour, Lyle Colby Mackson, and Mario Burrell. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

Tick (Mario Burrell) is a tall, gangly drag queen who’s had a, let’s say “confused” life. He fathered a child ten years ago, then realized he was not only gay but also wanted to perform as a drag queen. His ex-wife Marion (Gina Torrecilla) – who runs a club out in the middle of nowhere – is understanding, but tells him in no uncertain terms that his son Benjy (Jack Brody and Nick Brody, alternating the role) is at an age when he needs a father, and Tick better damn well come out for a visit.

Tick persuades Bernadette (Tad Coughenour), an aging drag diva, and Adam (Lyle Colby Mackston), a young and flamboyant queen, to join him for an engagement at his ex-wife’s club, which (incidentally) will allow him to see his son. Their mode of transport: a bus they name Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

L-R: Tad Coughenour, Lyle Colby Mackston, and Mario Burrell. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

There may not be much traffic in the desert, but there are plenty of characters in the small towns they pass through: some nice, some not so nice. Among the nice ones is Bob (George Chavez), a mechanic who remembers Bernadette from her days as one of “Les Girls” and falls in love with her all over again.

L-R: Tad Coughenour, Lyle Colby Mackston, Mario Burrell, and George Chavez. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

And then there are the Divas (Markesha Chatfield, Katie Self, and Andrea Somera) and the members of the Male Ensemble (John Paul Batista, Marqell Edward Clayton, Jason De Puy, and Jamie Pierce), who occasionally burst into the bus, the desert, the small-town saloons, as well as song and dance, to liven things up. For this is a musical, after all, and considering that the music includes solid-gold hits such as “It’s Raining Men,” “I Will Survive,” “I Love the Nightlife,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and a hilariously surreal rendition of “MacArthur Park” – we need guys’n’gals who are there to sing and dance and show us how to “Shake Your Groove Thing.”

L-R: Andrea Somera, Markesha Chatfield, and Katie Self. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

As has become usual at Celebration Theatre, the cast is uniformly fine. Mr. Burrell’s Tick may be awkward and bumbling and apprehensive about meeting his son, but when he comes face to face with the boy for the first time, the delight on his face is sublime. Mr. Mackston’s spitfire of a young, tempestuous drag queen starts out as someone you’d love to hate, but Mr. Mackston gradually insinuates the character’s innate likability. And Mr. Coughenour deftly balances the cat-claws of an aging queen who has a devastating riposte for every insult, with the dignified, heart-wrenching vulnerability of a person who wants, above all, to be loved. That all three of these gentlemen are terrific singers, dancers, and comedians goes without saying – they bring down the house more times than is decent.

Decent, however, is the word for Bob, and Mr. Chavez makes him believable and sympathetic; Mr. Chavez also plays a smaller, but more flamboyant, role at the top of the show with hair that must be seen to be believed. As Marion, the one truly “normal” adult character in the story, Ms Torrecilla is simple, straightforward, and empathetic – just what the role needs. And as Benjy, Jack Brody, who played the role the night I saw the show, was sharp and focused and had a lovely singing voice.

L-R: Marqell Edward Clayton, Lyle Colby Mackston, John Paul Batista and Jamie Pierce. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

Music Director Jennifer Lin gets a big noise from the small but effective band (Johanna Chase, Carlos Felipe Flores, and Nicole Marcus), while choreographer Roman Pantoja has created jubilant and at times screamingly funny dance routines. Pete Hickok’s set cleverly manages to do double, triple, quadruple, (and more) duty, and Brandon Baruch’s energetic lighting makes everything glow. Allison Dillard’s costumes are riotous – this is a good thing – and are ably abetted by Byron Batista’s hair and wig designs. Ms Hanna’s assured direction pulls all the elements together.

If there’s one nit to pick, it’s that some of the performers occasionally seem to forget that, when singing with microphones, enunciation is even more important than usual, as amplification flattens and distorts lyrics. Fortunately, we all know most of the songs, so we can sing to ourselves if a lyric gets lost.

L-R: Katie Self, Markesha Chatfield, and Andrea Somera. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

While Priscilla Queen of the Desert is outrageous and wildly entertaining, it also hews to a tradition of the best Broadway musicals: the “transcendent moment.” This moment – and even The Book of Mormon, rude as it is, has one – is when you find yourself genuinely caring about the characters and what happens to them. Priscilla has several transcendent moments: the lovely scene between Tick and Benjy – who adores his father, no matter that he dresses up in women’s clothes and prances about on a stage – when they harmonize on the song “Always On My Mind”; the grateful astonishment on Bernadette’s face as she realizes that, with Bob, it may not be too late to have the life she always secretly wished for; and – finally – the Finale, where the characters in the play and the performers in the theatre become one, and we in the audience can see and experience Priscilla Queen of the Desert for what it really is: a warm-hearted, full-throated shout-out to humanity, whatever one’s race, sex, gender, or taste in couture. The stage of Celebration Theatre becomes ground zero for an exhilarating, defiant, and joyous celebration of life in all its crazy splendor. Who could ask for anything more?

Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical
Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Music by Various Artists
Directed by Jessica Hanna

Through April 15

Celebration Theatre @ The Lex
6760 Lexington Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: 323-957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com


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