Theater Review / Priscilla Queen of the Desert A rollicking riot of fun at the Waterfront

By Joanna Brady

Don your most colorful boa and join the avid audience at the Waterfront Playhouse for a great evening of fun and glitz, an extravaganza of Broadway, Vegas, and Fantasy Fest rolled into one. 

With a large multi-talented cast and ancillary crew, Priscilla Queen of the Desert  is sparkling professional entertainment, expertly directed by Tom Thayer. A great way to celebrate the theater’s 80th year.

Yes, there is a story. Tick, (played brilliantly by Dave Bootle), a drag queen in Sydney, Australia, was once married. His ex, who lives in Alice Springs, thinks it’s time he got to know his ten-year-old son, Benji.  He books a gig at a club there and enlists two friends—a gay entertainer, Adam (played by a very athletic talent, Connor Cook), and a newly-widowed trans named Bernadette, who manages to be both surly and scathingly funny (Key West’s famous drag celebrity, Christopher Peterson)—to join him across the desert in a dilapidated bus, a prop by Michael Boyer cleverly designed to rotate. 

The show then morphs into their excellent adventure as they stop in dreary towns with strange-sounding names—and even stranger people; some funny, some dangerously mean-minded. Not that they aren’t nasty and bitchy with each other, particularly when the bus breaks down and they’re disgusted and cranky.

But this isn’t just a gay buddy road show. It’s is a high energy production, a musical vehicle for plenty of dancing, choreographed by Carolyn Cooper (a member of the ensemble), with focus on nostalgic music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. I really enjoyed revisiting old songs from that golden era. Songs like “What’s Love Got to do with it?” “Say A Little Prayer,” “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” “I Will Survive,” “Hot Stuff”; some twenty-four or so memorable favorites, performed in fabulous costumes by a terrific ensemble of about twelve people, too numerous to acknowledge here (my apologies!). Three glittery divas, played by Sabrina Fosse, Belle Jampol, and Laurent Thompson pop up in many of the scenes, much like a Greek chorus, each costume more glitzy than the last.  The ever-entertaining David Black, almost unrecognizable in gray facial hair, turns up to sing and woo Bernadette.

The genesis of this play was a 1994 Oscar winner, the movie The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Social messages are there, but nuanced. It never gets preachy. When the bus is slapped with homophobic graffiti, the trio defiantly paint it pink and name it “Priscilla,” hence the show’s name. It reminded me of an earlier quote by Christopher Peterson in a dramatic scene from The Legend of Georgia McBride a few years ago: Delivering a lesson in self-acceptance, Rexy, a past victim of homophobic bullying, sums it up: “Drag is a protest; drag is a raised fist.” There is a hint of that in this play in the search for acceptance, especially by Tick.

Tick’s son Benji, is played by a very talented young Jake Ferguson, who sings a number with him. Bootle’s rendition of  “Always on my mind” to his son in a very touching scene is quite lovely. Benji, it turns out, is mature beyond his years, accepting of “la difference.”

Besides his singing, dancing, and acting, Christopher Peterson was responsible for the costumes, which are phenomenal. The dancing paintbrushes in the number “Color My World” and another number featuring dancing cupcakes are outstanding. The headdresses in the final number are works of art. 

Finally, without the live band, there’d be no music. Michael Fauss, Ken Swinkin, Gary Rivenson, Larry Baeder, Roberta Jacyshyn and Donna DeForrest delivered that necessary element with talent and style.

Reserve your tickets now. This one will sell out fast. Play runs March 5-28. All performances are at 8:00. One brief intermission. Adult entertainment. For tickets, visit waterfrontplayhouse.org or call 305-294-5015. Waterfront Playhouse is located on historic Mallory Square.

(Joanna Brady is a local writer, author of the historical Key West novel, The Woman at the Light, published by St. Martin’s Press)