‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ might be too dazzling for its own good at Theatre Rhinoceros

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One of the earliest scenes in the musical “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” takes place at a funeral, except you almost wouldn’t know it. The characters have all gathered to mourn the death of Trumpet — who was named such not for his musical prowess but for his enormous foreskin — and to express this deep, moving loss by pelvic thrusting and gyrating to “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”

It’d be a lie to say that was even the most ridiculous moment in Theatre Rhinoceros’ production of “Priscilla,” playing at the Gateway Theatre in San Francisco this month. The nation’s longest-running LGBTQ+ theater put on a delightful production of the popular musical — and even in the show’s rockiest moments, its queens still shone.

The story of “Priscilla” is based on that of the 1994 Australian comedy “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Two drag queens, Mitzi (Rudy Guerrero) and Felicia (Charles Peoples III), and a transgender woman, Bernadette (Kim Larsen), hop aboard a bus named Priscilla and make their way across the desert toward a casino where they’ll perform a drag show, making a smattering of stops along the way. Their story is as equally full of comedic absurdities as it is full of intense confrontations with homophobia.

The original film won an Academy Award for costume design, and Theatre Rhinoceros’ production certainly followed the show’s tradition of lavish, colorful get-ups. A team of six costume designers — Robert Horek, Karr, Glenn Krumbholz, David Bjorklund, Daisy Neske and Cindy Preiado — put together exquisite dresses and larger-than-life headpieces for each drag performance. Even still, it wasn’t just the queens who got to enjoy silky, glittery, bold fabrics — characters large and small were decked out in impressive looks for every scene. And when the whole cast would parade out onstage for an ensemble number, the pink shimmery curtain glistening behind it, it was truly a sight to behold.

Unfortunately, where the cast of “Priscilla” excelled visually, it oftentimes disappointed vocally. More than one rendition of the numerous ‘80s camp classics that peppered the score bordered on cringeworthy, reminiscent more of a cruise ship karaoke night than of a serious theatrical production. To exacerbate the situation, only a few members of the cast seemed to successfully maintain an Australian accent through the entirety of the show, while the rest regularly slipped in and out of it.  

One vocal moment, however, did stand out — though not because someone onstage was singing. When Felicia sat atop the bus, dressed in a metallic silver jumpsuit and matching headpiece, she performed an absolutely hilarious lip-sync to the operatic “Sempre Libera,” pairing each vibrato and vocal trill with a seizured motion and melodramatic facial expression. In this moment, it became abundantly clear that as Felicia, Peoples is certainly the production’s standout performer; his infectious energy is impossible to turn yourself away from.

“Priscilla” has always been a show beloved for the ways in which it empowers its queer characters and overturns traditional perspectives on masculinity. Its interrogations into homophobic aggressions and misconceptions — both from outside the queer community and within it — are as challenging to the audience as they are to the show’s characters. Still, some of these moments of genuine gravitas are glossed over too quickly and not allowed to sit with the audience (take, for example, the moment in which the team’s bus is graffitied with a homophobic slur, or when Felicia is physically attacked by a group of countrymen, or when Mitzi wrestles with his anxieties toward revealing his profession to his son).

Perhaps blowing past these moments with an inspirational quote or a flashy song was meant to be a way to propel its characters through moments of injustice and pain, but the brevity of the show’s conflicts almost excuses its audiences from considering them too deeply.

It can be challenging to separate out the flaws of a production from the pitfalls of the show’s original script, especially in the case of the way gravitas is handled in “Priscilla.” That being said, the musical’s decadelong history of defying stereotypes should be applauded — the original production is considered a rare example of an honest and inspiring representation of LGBTQ+ characters. And as the cherry on top, Theatre Rhinoceros, which has brought LGBTQ+ works to the stage since 1977, was the perfect place for “Priscilla” to park itself.

“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” will run through June 30 at Gateway Theatre. 

Shannon O’Hara covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].