Costumes & a party atmosphere keep this iconic story of acceptance and belonging relevant
Anthony King | SDUN Editor
There is something special about Priscilla, the “Queen of the Desert.” Perhaps the LGBT community claims it so strongly because the 1994 film became a commercial and critical hit, launching itself into cult status so quickly upon release. Or perhaps it is because it is inclusive of the often forgotten transgender, gender queer and bisexual identities that make up the LGBT spectrum.
What is known, however, is that the story – now a Broadway musical sensation and touring production show – touches on the basic tenants of acceptance and trusting your own nature, whatever that may be.
“Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical” comes to San Diego for eight shows, Tuesday, Oct. 15 – 20, and cast member Wade McCollum – playing Tick, one of the three leads who makes that iconic journey across the Australian Outback – said he loves exactly what he is doing.
“The message in the movie and in the play is belonging and overcoming self doubt,” McCollum said. “I think the play does a very good job of partying around those themes.”
And what a party this show has been. McCollum and the cast and crew have been touring since January, with San Diego near the end of their yearlong run. He said it is easy to get swept up in the visuals – the costumes alone won the Tony Award for Best Design – and party-like atmosphere of the show, but at its heart, “Priscilla” is topical, even 20 years after the film’s debut.
“We’re met with extreme enthusiasm and kind of an uncanny amount of energy return at the end of the show,” he said, calling it “beautiful” to feel as an actor. “What I’ve found in touring the show is we’ve got this incredible opportunity.”
That goal is to entertain, for certain, but McCollum said it was also an opportunity to reach people still not familiar with bisexuality, transgender visibility, or gender queer and intersex.
“All those incredibly beautiful spectral gray areas of sexual expression and gender expression are still very topical for almost all communities,” he said. “Just that alone is pretty revolutionary.”
During the show’s tour, McCollum said they have taken several opportunities to outreach to local communities, including speaking to a group of queer high school students in Philadelphia about which pronouns they prefer, to visiting a queer youth homeless shelter in San Francisco. Both youth groups came and saw the show as well.
“[They are] really on the edge of not having a place to be, and really trying to find a sense of belonging in this crazy world,” he said.
He also described a moment at the San Francisco youth shelter where a transgender young woman, reluctant to speak, asked McCollum if there was a place for her “as an artist and a spokesperson,” he said.
“The room disappeared, and I was like, ‘Yes, of course. … You’re already starting that conversation just by being in the room,’” he said.
Two days later, McCollum and the rest of the cast were in Denver, Colo. being interviewed by Eden Lane, the first out, transgender journalist on national television. McCollum said it was a special moment.
“I am drawn to material that is about inciting those conversations so that we can do what I believe theater’s function is, which is to discourse about the issues within the drama and then grow as a society,” he said.
He agreed that he was in the exact right moment he needs to be, both personally and professionally. And as an actor who has been in some of the top theatrical productions – “Jersey Boys,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Angels in America” are just a small number of credentials on this actor’s list – that is saying quite a lot.
“It’s an honor to be a part of something that is so aesthetically genius and has such whimsy and depth,” McCollum said. He is, of course, talking about those award-winning costumes as well.
Wardrobe supervisor Gillian Austin travels with McCollum and the rest of the production, each night organizing an integral aspect of the show: the thousands of shoes, hats, wigs and dresses that can, she said, appear on stage for mere moments. For Austin, it all started as a love of sewing.
“It’s really cool that they let me do this,” she said, laughing. Austin, a Chicago native who now calls Louisiana home, said she is working her “dream job” after living in New York City, taking sewing classes and waiting tables. The attention “Priscilla” has given her this year has made her somewhat of a star.
“I’ve been joking that I’m kind of a rock star on this tour, because the costumes are so great,” she said, humbly adding, “It has nothing to do with me.”
Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner won the Tony Award in 2011, after winning the 2010 Laurence Olivier Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for costume design as well. The tricks, Austin said, are making it seamless each and every performance.
“The most important part is dressing the show, and making sure the show happens the way it’s supposed to,” she said. “We know how to handle certain situations.”
From actors who rip through the dresses in a rush to get prepared, to a tricky scene where one actor sticks his legs through the back, pink curtain for a shoe change – the costumes take up the entire backstage area, directly behind the curtain and often, Austin said, strung up in the rafters – she said everything that could have gone wrong has, though nothing too serious.
“I think it’s just really lucky,” she said, calling those “a-ha moments” when they figure out how to maneuver those situations with ease and keeping the costumes new each night as satisfying.
McCollum said he works hard to keep each night fresh, too, being “fully present” in his mind to retain some of the innocence of the story. They each get a bit of help from those on the other side of the curtain, as well.
“Does the audience keep us buoyant and fresh? Absolutely,” he said.
“Priscilla Queen of the Desert” opens at Downtown’s San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave. on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. with seven additional performances through Oct. 20. Show times are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
For more information and tickets, visit broadwaysd.com or call 619-570-1100.