Some of the opening night audience greeted Priscilla fondly, like an old friend unseen since her movie came out years ago. I hadn’t seen the movie, never met the old bus, but it wasn’t hard to understand the warm feelings for the Queen of the Desert that hauled two drag queens and a transgendered performer off into the Outback of Australia.
It took me a few minutes into the Blue Barn’s production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: the Musical to get comfortable with the motley trio but it wasn’t long before I was rooting for all three: For Adam/Felicia (Matt Bailey) to get his over-the-top feminine side under enough control to keep him out of trouble, for aging Bernadette (Cork Ramer) to find her true love, and for Tick/Mitzi (Mark Hinrichs) to bond with a son unaware of his show-biz persona.
That all unfolds after a splashy opening with three divas led by Roderick Cotton as Miss Understanding. He/She is a striking enough presence, both physical and vocal, to compete with a setting dominated by a shaggy curtain consisting of plastic grocery bags.
Michelle Zacharia gets credit for this recycling creation, and it was appealing enough that, for the first time in my memory, my wife had to take a picture of a curtain with her smart phone. It hangs under a light-bulb-bordered arch surrounded by a map of sorts that lists such Outback destinations as “The Back of Beyond.”
The three set off from Sydney to perform many days away and of course Priscilla breaks down far out in the boonies. Far out? That’s what a congenial mechanic named Bob (Don Keelan-White) said when they got stuck: “Do you realize how far out you are?” Having said that to three men dressed as women, he quickly added, “I mean, off the highway.”
Off the beaten track and far out in the John Denver sense meant that Bob was more friendly than some others encountered wasting away in redneckville. Priscilla takes a beating from unfriendlies who leave her with “F— Off Faggots” on the windshield, and a bar-hop gives Christina Thornton a great chance to create a memorably bulky biker chick. She competes with the energetic Roni Shelley Perez for the title of Outstanding Outback Character. Having loved Ms. Perez as the lead in last year’s Heathers: the Musical, I found it fascinating that she could make such impact in a cameo role that allowed her to burst on stage in a manic mode wearing one of designer Jennifer Pool’s kooky costumes.
Pool had great sport with the divas and ensemble, and especially Bailey in his lithe and swishy style as Felicia. But she gave Ramer such a classy look as the long, slim Bernadette that I kept thinking of the leading lady in the Barn’s Three Tall Women by Edward Albee. Having seen this seasoned veteran in such roles as Don Quixote and Scrooge, it was a treat to catch him cross gender.
Hinrichs had the most conventional role of the lead trio and handled it well, especially with such vocals as Willie Nelson’s “You Are Always on My Mind,” sung to his son, played on opening night by his real-life son Julian Hinrichs.
I didn’t intend to get this far in the review without mentioning the music conducted by Doran Schmidt. The show’s full of familiar songs. Aubrey Fleming, for example, does Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and almost everyone takes a turn on such favorites as “I Will Survive.” Ramer and Keelan-White add appealing vocals of their own, but the operatic number with Bailey’s Felicia on a huge red shoe and “A Fine Romance” with Sam Woods lip-synching as Young Bernadette are recorded.
Directors Susan Clement-Toberer and Randall T. Stevens picked another season-ending musical that lives up to expectations, and Stevens seemed to be having the time of his life as part of the antic ensemble. Heard in the lobby at intermission: “Randy’s still got it.”
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Musical runs through June 25 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays in June at the Blue Barn Theatre, 1106 S. 10th St. Tickets are $35, $30 seniors, students and groups, available by calling 402.345.1576.