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Review: Colorful 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert' a bit of a drag

Priscilla Queen of the Desert is loaded with music that is perfect for a party: It's loud and lousy. Don't get me wrong, I love the nightlife as much as the next musical theatergoer. And shaking their groove thing was clearly uppermost for many people in Tuesday's opening night crowd, with enough pink suits and feather boas to turn the Straz Center into a reasonable facsimile of a giant drag club.

But isn't it about time that disco anthems be given a rest? Priscilla, based on the 1994 Australian road movie in which three drag queens (technically, one of them is a transsexual) make a trek across the Outback in the magic bus that gives the show its title, is built around a score of synth-heavy, bass-thudding hits, ranging from It's Raining Men to I Will Survive, Boogie Wonderland to Like a Virgin. Great stuff, and the hard-working cast does a decent job with the familiar fare, the kind of music that is fun to listen to while driving or doing housework, singing in a karaoke bar or getting down on the dance floor.

At least since Mamma Mia! Broadway has been overrun with jukebox shows that lean heavily on disco fever, and it's all starting to sound a bit stale. There's a limit to what you can do dramatically with Hot Stuff or Material Girl. Theater should be original, not just a pop culture ripoff. Oh, Priscilla has a book of sorts by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, but any effort at achieving genuine emotion is tied to a prefab pop song that often misses the point. For example, when the drag queen Tick/Mitzi (Wade McCollum) meets his 6-year-old son, Benji (Shane Davis on Tuesday), for the first time, their recognition duet is the sentimental Always on My Mind. Never mind that Tick abandoned the kid.

Priscilla may be the gayest musical yet — and that is saying something — with outrageous Tony Award-winning costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner that make the most of sequins, towering heels and elaborate wigs. Favorites include a chorus line of paint brushes and the dancing cakes for MacArthur Park. Three divas (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West) in fabulous outfits descend from the flies whenever there's a Donna Summer moment.

As drag queen Adam/Felicia, Bryan West will break hearts with his hunky looks ("body by Baywatch ... brain by Pamela Anderson"), and he lip-synchs Sempre Libera from La Traviata from a giant high heel atop the bus. There are other witty touches like a Village People spoof of Go West, a brilliantly weird funeral scene to Don't Leave Me This Way and a duel in the desert between Bob (Joe Hart), the bus repair guy wielding a muffler and exhaust pipe, and an Aborigine with a spear.

For all its gay pride, this musical directed by Simon Phillips is strangely conventional in its treatment of sex and gender issues, mainly trafficking in predictably homophobic encounters between the girls and Aussie good ol' boys. The aging transsexual Bernadette (Scott Willis) has a few poignant scenes, but the end result is always standard-issue LGBT uplift. Really, there's more queer theory at work in a golden oldie like La Cage Aux Folles. But hey, Priscilla does include a rendition of the infamous episode from the movie in which Bob's mail-order bride, Cynthia (understudy Amy Hillner Larsen on Tuesday), shoots ping pong balls from an unexpected body part.

Incidentally, if you buy the Priscilla cast album in the Straz lobby you get quite a different song list from the show onstage. The CD is from the Australian production and lacks It's Raining Men and the Madonna numbers but does include Downtown and Venus.

A home for Simple Theatre

A Simple Theatre is joining forces with Eckerd College to produce its plays at Bininger Theatre on the school's campus in St. Petersburg. "I am thrilled with this agreement," Gavin Hawk, artistic director of the company and assistant professor in the Eckerd theater program, said in a statement. "We will have a permanent home in which we can produce our plays, in a space that has proper lighting and sound equipment, and an existing scene and costume shop. We will also be able to work with current theatre students at the college, enabling them to obtain valuable real-world experience." Simple Theatre, founded in 2011, previously performed at Studio@620 in St. Petersburg. Its first production at Eckerd will be Good Egg by Dorothy Fortenberry July 11-28. Information: asimpletheatre.org.

Cuban dancer in Sarasota

One of the seven dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba who defected last month while on tour in Mexico has landed in Sarasota. Edward Gonzalez Morgado signed a contract this week with Sarasota Ballet to be a soloist in the 2013-14 season. "I want to be the best dancer I can and I know that being in America will allow me that opportunity," Gonzalez, 23, said in a statement from the Sarasota company. The Cuban ballet company, directed by the legendary Alicia Alonso, has had a number of dancers defect through the years. Gonzalez will attend classes with the Sarasota company and work in its school. "I'm pleased to give Gonzalez the opportunity to grow and expand artistically," Iain Webb, the Sarasota director, said. "He's a raw talent and I can't wait to start working with him."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

.if you go

Priscilla Queen of the Desert continues through Sunday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. Run time: 2 hours, 40 minutes, including intermission. $44.50-$79.50. (813) 229-7827 or 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

Review: Colorful 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert' a bit of a drag 04/10/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 7:26pm]
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