“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” emerged in the mid-1990s, a rollicking and ribald film about two female impersonators and an aging transgender woman who were all suffering from a particular personal crisis, prompting the purchase of a tour bus lovingly christened “Priscilla.”
What followed was an ill-advised drag-show-cum-road-trip into the heart of the Northern Territory of Australia, a region peppered with conservative hamlets and jammed with reactionary puritans — think what might happen if an impromptu pride parade were mounted at the roughest bar in Prineville, and you get the idea. Standard lessons in underdog humor as a mechanism for survival, of bigotry and the triumph of the will, inevitably follow. The film was excellent, made all the more glorious by august thespian Terrance Stamp as the transgender Bernadette, soon-to-be “Matrix” bad-guy Hugo Weaving as Tick, and Guy Pearce as the vulgar but somehow lovable muscle-twink, Felicia.
I was skeptical that Camelot Theatre would have the creative capacity to pull off the musical version of this vaunted indie classic — elaborate exotic costuming being crucial, and a passable Australian dialect as an absolute necessity. Camelot has had a lot of trouble with good Commonwealth accents in the past, so I felt justified in my concern.
Well, I was wrong to worry. Not only do the three leading “ladies” in this show knock the ball(s) out of the park, but the costumes and production design signal that Camelot’s new artistic director, Shawn Ramos — who directed this show alone for the first time — seems ready and willing to raise the bar on quality production values at the theater.
From a sartorial standpoint, one wonders if Ramos has been recently underwritten by a new, particularly flush donor. There are 24 actors onstage and each scene gives way to more and more elaborate attire. Overall, the spectacle of the show (replete with a bus on stage that rotates regularly to show the campy horseplay within) is among the best that Camelot has produced in recent memory.
Scott Ford, as Bernadette, is a (relatively) low-key delight, with a capacity for catty comebacks at key moments where survival and boundary-setting are called for. Ford is no spring chicken, but he bounds and bounces through multiple spicy dance numbers, keeping up with the action in a compelling and endearing manner. The scene in which he confronts a prejudiced crone in an Outback bar is among the more memorable moments in the show.
As Tick, Zachary Horn is the glue holds this bitchy triumvirate together. His portrayal of a drag queen in her prime — who has a past with women, and a son to show for it — is well-rendered. He serves as a bridge of logic between the long-suffering Bernadette and the arrogant but easily affected Felicia.
On the whole, though, this show belongs to Evan Sheets, a young actor who made his bones in multiple productions at the Teen Musical Theater of Oregon and bursts onto the stage here as Felicia. Sheets is pretty terrific, elegantly camp where called for and erotically charged when necessary. He has a strong comedic gift, but the rubber-faced antics are more Buster Keaton than Jim Carrey — he manages to convey the terror and pathos of the little boy lost from under his abundant eyeliner and lip gloss.
Other longtime Camelot performers make the most of their supporting roles, with both Courtney Crawford and Grace Peets turning up in a group of three “Divas” with cleavage and shimmer to spare; Peets in particular is great at Marilyn Monroe-style flout and pout, making her performance ultra-memorable. Shannon Carter and Jessica Mengel are both relatively new to Camelot, but stand out in the ensemble scenes. Erny Rosales is delightful and alarming as a belligerent den mother under the daunting moniker of “Miss Understanding.” The rest of the cast do well, on the whole.
The company has been at its best when it busts out these kind of high-energy, feather-boa kickathons, as I noted in my review of “La Cage aux Folles” in 2016. Priscilla is a great deal of fun and pokes fun at all the stickiest prejudices. It’s a fun and flamboyant night on the town that you probably won’t want to miss.
“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” runs at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent, July 11-Aug. 5.
Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.