Drag-themed Priscilla Queen of the Desert is this season’s must-see show
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When it comes to seminal movies for young gay men these days, they lean toward the sassy and the sing-y: Mean Girls, The Devil Wears Prada, Pitch Perfect. But go back a generation, and the independent queer cinema movement meant more film choices. Among them were less superficial efforts like Beautiful Thing, Trick, My Own Private Idaho and anything by Gregg Araki.
Though not directly linked to the 1990s LGBT cinema explosion, Priscilla Queen of the Desert — a 1994 Australian film about three drag performers traveling across the Outback for a residency show at a casino — also struck a chord with the gay community. It remains one of those films your average homosexual male just eventually sees.
May its stage adaptation assume the same evolution, because it’s a winner, one that transcends its queer jukebox and camp appeal with a genuine heartbeat.
The breezy narrative begins with Tick (Wade McCollum), who essentially agrees to stage a drag show in a remote town’s casino run by his wife, Marion (Christy Faber), mostly to develop a relationship with their son, Benji (Shane Davis). He cajoles Bernadette (Scott Willis), a grieving transgender woman longing for a life companion, and Adam (Bryan West), the least self-conscious gay man one may ever encounter, to join him in a bus they dub Priscilla (and she’s a star in her own right, especially when lit up). Along the way, they charm all they encounter, except for those living in the wilderness who are uncomfortable with outsiders who don’t express themselves within the traditional boundaries of their birth gender.
There’s potential for overt political correctness, as well as over-reliance on the drag-queen archetype, but thankfully, writers Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott did not craft one-dimensional characters. Equally reassuring is that the writing doesn’t devolve into schmaltz, or try too hard to match up with the songs’ lyrical content. More to the point, despite the increasingly deplorable American Idol-ization of Broadway (ahem, Mamma Mia, Rock of Ages), its choice of songs — such as “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” “Material Girl,” “I Will Survive” — feels justified given Priscilla is about drag queens, and its characters are performing mostly drag-show standards.
That’s the fun part, especially with the assistance of diva singers who often hang suspended over the stage, and a versatile dance crew. But the three leads effortlessly handle the dramatic heavy lifting and display exact comedic timing when it comes to the puns and put-downs. Which is to say it’s both heartfelt and entertaining. Priscilla will have special importance for gay ticketholders, of course, but its emphasis on the importance of human connectivity ought to resonate with almost everyone else.
PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT 8 p.m., Wednesday-Monday, through Aug. 18; The Venetian, venetian.com, 414-9000, $74-$173