'Priscilla' successfully balances camp with heart

There was a time when most Las Vegas entertainment could be described as peering into the inner head space of a drag queen.

The grand old “feather shows” — all of them gone now, except for “Jubilee!” — had nothing on the action surrounding the three female impersonators of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” as they splash pink paint on a dilapidated bus in the Australian outback.

To the strains of “Colour My World” — because the paint job is to cover an anti-gay slur applied by the local lads — the trio are surrounded by a chorus line of showgirls/boys, with frocks in the shape of paint brush handles topped by head pieces that look like animated, splattering drops.

These periodic fantasias, with the Tony-winning costumes of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardner erupting from the “real” storyline, turn out to be a fine way of keeping this Broadway musical version of the movie comedy from having to choose one path or the other.

Do you strip the 1994 cult hit down to the bare frame of its plot and turn it into a camp romp? A sort of “Hairspray” gone “Rocky Horror” with gravity-defying costumes and a “jukebox” soundtrack of disco-era classics?

Or do you keep at least a little of the movie dragging the feathers and makeup into the hardscrabble desert sunlight, and try to preserve its touching story of friendship and acceptance?

Yes and yes, it turns out.

And it works. At least once the audience is seated. It might be harder to market the wider appeal of this very gay musical — sequined jock straps, anyone? — at Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian, where the touring Broadway show parks for much of the summer (in other cities, the grounding, universal elements can be a pleasant surprise in a subscription series).

Still, this could very easily have been a show about costumes; human cupcakes, koalas and showgirls balancing fishbowls on their heads. For anything else getting attention, credit an economic script co-written by the film’s creator, Stephan Elliott, and fine-tuned, nuanced performances by its trio of leads.

Tick (Wade McCollum), a sweet guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, becomes “a drag queen on the verge of a nervous breakdown” when — surprise — his wife (Christy Faber) declares that after seven years, “It’s time to meet your son.” (Tick is confused by his bisexuality, and the script doesn’t try to explain it all for him.)

To sweeten the deal, she books his impersonator revue in the casino she oversees in remote Alice Springs. This means roping two friends into a road trip. One is older, one younger.

Bernadette (Scott Willis) clings to proud memories of a past fame as a drag star, but is adjusting to life as a post-op transsexual and a sudden widow.

Adam, aka Felicia (Bryan West), is the young wild child who still makes heads turn in clubs and is of the “new school” of drag, which pooh-poohs lip-syncing and does its singing live — as West proves can be done very well.

Together they set off in the titular bus, staged as a full-sized cutaway with spinning wheels, Lite-Brite luminescence and the ability to swivel with cinematic speed to show us both the interior and exterior.

All good road trips have highs, lows and moments of self-discovery. The triumphant conquest of one mining-town bar (to the strains of “I Love the Nightlife”) does not mean it will go so well in the next. “Never forget the cost of our choices, friends,” Bernadette notes.

Adam mocks Bernadette, but she turns out to be his rescuer and surrogate mother. Willis makes the character a tour de force role. She’s both the lady of the trio, slinging raunchy one-liners as if they were Noel Coward bon mots, but also its masculine energy.

The fun of getting there leads to predictable heart-string payoffs; Tick meeting his son (alternately played by Las Vegas youngsters Will B. and Shane Davis), and the evolving relationship between Bernadette and the bus mechanic (Joe Hart) who comes to their aid.

A Greek chorus of actual female “Divas” (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, Brit West) descends on wires now and then to lend strong voice to the retro pop tunes. The jukebox approach first seems lazy and silly — a funeral scene set to “Don’t Leave Me This Way” — but, like the rest of the musical, quickly grows on you.

You cannot deny the inspired moment that one-ups Wayne Newton in his own town. The Midnight Idol always made it literally rain during “MacArthur Park,” but “Priscilla” leaves a cake out too.

Maybe this does belong in Las Vegas after all.

Gender identity has never been as big an issue on the Strip as whether Broadway musicals should have an intermission. This one does not, but cuts only a few minutes of running time (the second act’s “curtain up” song). The encore party rages on long after the story ends, but the total running time is two hours and five minutes. Adjust fluid consumption accordingly.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.