“Priscilla — Queen of the Desert” is an extravagant pageant of love, life and unrestrained jubilation with lots of ’80s music, incredible costumes, killer choreography and vocal talent, a live orchestra and a huge bus on the stage.
“Priscilla” opened this week at the Camelot Theatre in Talent to a full house, and the crowd seemed ready for everything. As one audience member commented, “With drag, anything goes.”
Three drag queens drive a bus through the Australian desert to a casino that has booked their act. If you’re a fan of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” you might guess what’s coming. And if you love the glittering pop culture of the 1980s and the era’s muscular music or just want to see a spectacular theatrical production, “Priscilla — Queen of the Desert” is right up your alley.
The drag queens are played by Zachary Horn, Evan Sheets and Scott Ford. Horn is Tick, and Mitzi when in drag, showcasing many of the vocal roles that Tick carries and is exceptional. Sheets has the role of Adam when he is a man, and Felicia when he is in drag, and Scott Ford is Bernadette, who’s made his choice of gender surgically complete. As the three become closer during the journey, there’s bickering and tenderness that touch the heart, expressed through the choice of music and performance.
Sheets stands out as Adam and Felicia. He has a mad, manic vitality and his narrow body is transformed in drag, becoming weird, wonderful and mythic, comically too tall for the height of the bus, and the vertical height of the stage. Sheets writhes, gyres and gimbles in the waves of pop music that are compelling, hypnotic and hysterical.
Some “Priscilla” productions are lip-synced because it can be hard to find talent who can act as well as sing. Not at Camelot. Except for Sheets’ hyperbolic operatic rendition of “Sempre Libera” from the top of the bus, Camelot’s actors largely carried the sets.
The three divas are Courtney Crawford, Kelly Jean Hammond and Grace Peets. Their costumes and tall wigs are superb and so are their voices, serving as lead and background and often center stage. Peets’ vocal training is evident and is exceptional.
The cast of “Priscilla” is huge, and many of the performers have played roles in theaters around the valley. Rarely, though, have so many of these actors worked together so seamlessly and with such passion. The ensemble dance scenes are a synchronized spectacle, no one seeming encumbered by extraordinary costumes that might include 2-foot-tall flower hats, cake dresses, beaks and wings, six-inch platform heels and translucent, lighted, twirling umbrellas. Kudos to costume designer Darby McCue, who created these amazing looks.
“Priscilla” is a massive production in all respects: 24 actors in 27 roles plus the ensemble; 450 bigger-than-life costume pieces, often requiring five-second costume changes; extreme wigs and makeup in every scene. The design and production team numbered 19 specialists, and eight musicians, unseen in the rehearsal room, who played every one of the 24 numbers that described the narrative arc of the production.
Shawn Ramagos is Camelot’s new creative director, and “Priscilla” is the first production that he has been fully involved in. While “Priscilla” made the 2018 Camelot lineup last year, it is the perfect debut vehicle to showcase Ramagos’ creativity. The Camelot board made sure he’d have the resources he needed to deliver this enormous, high-quality production.
“I designed the show to be extremely interesting visually both with the video effects and the scenery,” Ramagos said. “We had to have the bus; we had to have the costumes. I think it was the only way to do this show right.”
Casting was nearly complete before Ramagos was hired, but once on board, he had all the actors audition and made some changes at that time. There’s rigorous attention to detail in “Priscilla,” a level of technical control and production value that we rarely see off-Bardway.
Ramagos’ visual design gifts and his stage management experience show clearly in his direction of “Priscilla.” So early in the run, Ramagos will likely make some changes to the set and staging, there are a few lags in mics and lights, and the Camelot sound system still distracts on occasion.
There is a spectacular power, an abandon and freedom in Camelot’s production of “Priscilla — Queen of the Desert.” It’s a jaw-dropping, amazing show and a lot of fun.
The play has adult themes and sexually explicit language, gestures and props; a disco ball reflects strobe lights through the theater. “Priscilla” runs about two hours with a 20-minute intermission and continues through Aug. 5. For more information and tickets, see www.camelottheatre.org.
Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at firstname.lastname@example.org.