The only thing surpassing the camp quotient of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert -- The Musical" is the enthusiasm with which the opening night audience greeted the jukebox show's arrival this week at the Auditorium Theatre.
The Auditorium's gilded interior perfectly suits this splendiferous spectacle about Australian drag queens on a cross-country road trip, whose principal attraction is the fabulously outrageous costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, and its greatest-hits-of-the-disco-era score.
"Priscilla Queen of the Desert"★ ★ ½
Location: Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50, E. Congress Parkway, Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, through March 30
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with intermission
Parking: Area garages and metered street parking
Rating: For adults; strong sexual content, partial nudity, adult language
This show's attraction has little to do with the negligible book by Allan Scott and Stephan Elliott (who directed the 1994 film), which chronicles a familiar tale of empowerment and acceptance and which veers from campy and sentimental to bawdy and saucy with very little impact.
Great musical theater it isn't. But director Simon Philips' flashy, fast-paced production has energy to burn and an ability to laugh at itself, reflected in the show's tongue-in-cheek sensibility. It's evident early on, thanks to the deliciously inappropriate use of "Don't Leave Me This Way" as a funeral hymn, and later in a gleefully over-the-top "MacArthur Park" featuring dancing cupcakes, an actual cake (if not actual rain) and ecstatic lip syncing from the kinetic Wade McCollum.
McCollum is endearing and vulnerable as Tick/Mitzi, a gay man working as a drag performer in a Sydney nightclub, while his wife Marion (Christy Faber) raises their 6-year-old son at a casino she manages in a remote burg called Alice Springs. After Marion invites Tick to meet his son and headline a show, he sets off for the outback accompanied by Bernadette (an affecting, candid Scott Willis), a semiretired transsexual and onetime drag star grieving the loss of her lover, and young Adam (a nicely brazen Bryan West), a cheeky up-and-comer who eschews lip syncing and Ziegfeld-style elegance in favor of live singing and dance moves that go way beyond suggestive.
With wigs and gowns in tow, the trio board a refurbished, neon pink bus for their journey. Dubbed Priscilla, the bus (designed by Brian Thompson) features an interior that resembles a Key West cocktail lounge and an exterior that serves as a screen for a series of whimsical projections.
An old-school/new-school conflict underscores the relationship between Bernadette and Adam, who spend much of the trip cat fighting. Along the way and in between breakdowns (mechanical and emotional), the trio entertains locals (some less tolerant than others) with a series of glitzy, high-energy production numbers featuring Chappel and Gardiner's eye-popping, neon-colored creations, accented with more glitter and feathers than you'd find in all of Las Vegas, and topped by towering wigs that double as visual puns.
Accompanying them is another fabulous diva trio made up of Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West, who descend from the ceiling to deliver roof-raising vocals on such anthems as The Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" and Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."
Ross Coleman's flex and pose choreography is unremarkable. And although the drag queen chorus sings and dances well, these gals -- camptastic couture aside -- look a lot like guys.
That's somehow fitting for a show where outrageous style trumps outright substance.