Performing Arts

Unicorn’s ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ features delightful performances and music

The drag queens of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical” (from left): Ron Megee, Francisco Javier Villegas and Dashawn Young.
The drag queens of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical” (from left): Ron Megee, Francisco Javier Villegas and Dashawn Young. Unicorn Theatre

There are few sure things in this world, but it can be safely said that the Unicorn Theatre’s new production of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical” will put a big stupid grin on your face not only for the show’s two-hour running time but for several hours thereafter.

Faithfully based on the hit 1994 Aussie film comedy about three drag queens steering a decrepit school bus (the “Priscilla” of the title) across the Outback, this stage version benefits from a jaw-dropping score of pop tunes, all of them so familiar audiences may be tempted to sing along.

Peppered with terrific performances and some spectacular ensemble singing, “Priscilla” has been directed with unflagging energy and much rudeness and raunch by Cynthia Levin and Missy Koonce, who nevertheless find the work’s tender heart.

The plot (for those lost souls who’ve never seen the film) is set in motion by Tick/Mitzi (Francisco Javier Villegas), a Sydney drag queen who has been invited by his estranged wife to come out to the desert metropolis of Alice Springs to visit the son he has never met. His ex (Laura Jacobs) sweetens the deal by promising that Tick can put on a big drag revue at the casino she manages.

Pushing down his parental fears, Tick recruits two other queens for the tour. One, played by Dashawn Young, is Adam/Felicia, a self-absorbed glamorpuss with a knack for getting into trouble. Young possesses a singing voice so scarily feminine that patrons will be checking their programs to be sure that she is actually a he.

Rounding out the trio is Ron Megee’s Bernadette, a long tall drink of sardonicism whose glory days on the runway are long past. Megee, a fixture of the KC comedy scene, has rarely been better, making of Bernadette a world-weary grand dame/den mother capable of fully expressing herself with a raised eyebrow or a curled upper lip.

The book by Stephan Elliott (the writer/director of the original film) and Allan Scott is unceasingly clever at bending familiar tunes (“Venus,” “I Love the Nightlife,” “True Colors,” “I Will Survive,” “Hot Stuff,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “MacArthur Park”) to the story at hand. (How can this be economically feasible? The song rights for this show must be stratospheric.)

And for many of these numbers the characters are backed up by the Divas (Colleen Grate, Shon Ruffin, Lexi Poindexter), golden-throated ladies in ’60s girl group chiffon who might have been plucked from a Motown revue.

On their journey across the wastelands Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette meet all sorts of folk, some of whom paint anti-gay slurs on Priscilla, while others are entertainment-starved yokels awed by the flashy/tacky production (the flamboyant costumes by Jon Fulton Adams and Wayne Potter are a show unto themselves).

Damron Russell Armstrong nails it both as Miss Understanding, a drag queen with a thing for Tina Turner (he sings “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”) and as Jimmy, an aborigine who dons beads and breechcloth to guide camera-packing tourists around the local sights.

Marc Liby is decent manliness incarnate as Bob, a mechanic called in to repair the sputtering Priscilla and who sticks around to woo Bernadette; Vanessa Severo nearly steals the evening as Bob’s maniacal mail-order bride Cynthia, who has her own show business dreams (they involve projecting Ping Pong balls from a very private part of her anatomy).

Tech aspects of “Priscilla” are wildly creative, from Gary Mosby’s scenic design (he makes a more than serviceable bus from a rolling platform and some seats) to Emily Swenson’s background projections, which give the illusion of the passing countryside outside the bus windows. And do not overlook the contribution of Ryan Webster’s wigs, — they’re as essential to this show as the terrific five-man orchestra.

On stage

“Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical” continues through June 25 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. See or call 816-531-7529.