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'Priscilla' dances to fun disco beat

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Through May 26

Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 First St., Dallas


214-631-2787; www.dallassummermusicals.org

Posted 6:54am on Wednesday, Jun. 19, 2013

A big part of what made the 1994 Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert so great was its deft mix of music (mostly from the disco era), outrageous visuals (it is about drag queens, after all) and great storytelling, much of that done through smart, and often funny, dialogue.

In adapting his own screenplay for the stage, Stephan Elliot (with help from Allan Scott) has the first two components of the aforementioned trifecta in place: The disco-era music (and how!) and visuals (double how!) make the title-shortened Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which is in town for two weeks courtesy Dallas Summer Musicals, fun-fun-fun!

But while the story is basically the same, they’ve removed the movie’s soul by minimizing the dialogue, often inexplicably placing it with snippets of other songs from ‘80s divas like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Pat Benatar. Remember the days when the writers of book musicals knew the difference between what should be said and what should be said to music?

As a result, it’s a blur of nonstop camp. Fans of the movie, which successfully tamed the camp with healthy doses of heart, will be ultimately disappointed in the stage version, which is directed by Simon Philips and choreographed by Ross Coleman.

Tick (played by Wade McCollum, who was last seen in Dallas as the Emcee in Dallas Theater Center’s Cabaret ) performs as drag character Mitzi in a Sydney nightclub. He wants to travel to the center of Australia to meet his young son, and perform in his estranged wife’s club. He enlists legendary Aussie transsexual Bernadette (Scott Willis) and Adam (drag queen character Felicia; played by Bryan West), who has no internal brain-to-mouth filter, to join him. They make this trip in an old bus they dub Priscilla, and have numerous adventures in the Australian desert on their journey, including meeting mechanic Bob (Joe Hart), who becomes a love interest for Bernadette.

Costumes, reimagined by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won Oscars for their costume work in the film (remember her credit card Oscar gown?) are, again, fabulous. This time we get lots of fantasy sequences, such as the ensemble appearing in paint brush outfits when Priscilla gets a pink paint job.

The drag numbers are sumptuous, too. Sometimes the drag performers lip sync to the songs, which are actually sung by a trio of Divas (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, Brit West); other times they sing as part of character development (music supervision and arrangements by Stephen “Spud” Murphy). The Don’t Leave Me This Way scene, for instance, works; but others, like the narrative use of “I Say a Little Prayer” and “We Belong” are dopey.

There are a few notable differences from the film, including that Adam’s favorite artist is Madonna rather than ABBA (we assume rights issues, considering ABBA has their own hit musical out there), and the best joke in the film, about his special trinket, is absent. Some of the other outrageous jokes (the Ping-pong ball scene; the MacArthur Park reference) are intact, though.

On Tuesday, the voices of the three leads were not up to snuff and there were a number of sound issues (one, early one, was nicely improvised by McCollum); but the Divas sounds fabulous, and often while floating above the stage.

Priscilla meets the “fun! fun! fun!” quotient, but over-the-top costumes and drag numbers can’t erase the empty feeling once the lights come up.

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