I have a lot of admiration for musical theater when it embraces what it is and abandons any and all sense of pretense.
When you think about it, most musicals are just (hopefully) great songs, lavish production numbers, and a few bawdy jokes packed with a whole lot of filler.
“Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” now playing at the Fox Theatre through Feb. 10, pulls away as much filler as possible and then turns everything else up to 11; which I suppose is what you should expect from a musical about drag queens.
This means that when the disco beats are thumping this is a show that is absolutely fabulous, but the downside is that it falls a little flat when it reaches for dramatic, emotional moments.
Based on the 1994 movie (and the play rather lazily lifts most of the dialogue directly from the film), “Priscilla” is the story of three Australian drag queens who travel by bus from Sydney to perform at a remote casino in the heart of the country.
Tick (Wade McCollum) arranges the trip with an ulterior motive, which is to visit his ex-wife Marion (Christy Faber) and his young son, Benji (played on alternating nights by Shane Davis and Will B. Whitesell), whom he has never met.
Tick recruits the aging, but ever-classy Bernadette (Scott Willis) and the young, brash and sassy Adam (Bryan West) to join him on his road trip.
As you would expect, men dressed in glamorous gowns and platform heels are an oddity in the Australian Outback and the trio are met with everything ranging from bewilderment to hostility as they travel west.
Aside from all of their actual baggage, the girls have their fair share of personal baggage as well. In addition to Tick’s issues with his son, Bernadette is battling a broken heart and growing older, and Adam (aka Felicia) has a quick tongue and few scruples.
But what really matters here is the music, the outfits, and the glitter. “Priscilla” is a jukebox musical packed with disco hits like “Hot Stuff” and “I Will Survive,” along with a whole lot of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper.
Several of the songs are punctuated by three “Divas” (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, and Brit West) who often appear suspended from the ceiling and whose sole purpose is to belt the thundering high notes the boys in the cast don’t dare reach for.
The tour bus for this show must drag a 24-Hour Fitness Center behind it because this probably the most chiseled cast to ever roll through the Fox Theatre. Of course, spending night after night on stage in various stages of undress in front of hundreds of people would probably be enough to make anyone do a few more reps in the gym.
“Priscilla” is a lot of fun, but it is a very uneven show. This is probably best reflected in the three leads. West and Willis steal the show with their broad, but clearly defined characters. McCollum, on the other hand, seems to struggle with Tick, a character whose fluid identity issues are probably a little too complex for a show like this.
Because of this, the story at the heart of the musical fails to connect and we are left with a show that is all flash, but no bang.
But no matter, because the flash is glorious enough to make “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” an entertaining enough show that can be enjoyed by boys, girls, and everyone in between.
“Priscilla Queen of the Desert” is now playing at the Fox Theatre through February 10. For tickets call (314)-534-1111 or go to metrotix.com.