In 1994, a wildcard Australian independent film found unlikely financial and critical success, exceeding box office expectations, nabbing an Oscar and, most importantly, gaining a legion of cult fans who would keep the film in the public eye for years to come. In 2006, that fan base prompted a stage version of the film.
The musical, which appropriately debuted in Sydney, was written by the original film director Stephan Elliott and Scottish screenwriter Allan Scott, and encompassed the ultimate drag queen pop playlist. Like the film, the theatrical version follows a drag queen who initiates a road trip with two fabulous friends to rural Australia, where he hopes to reconnect with his son. A reclaimed party bus the travelers nicknamed Priscilla carries the trio through misadventures in the outback.
Key West audiences can catch the live-action version of “Priscilla” at Waterfront Playhouse through March 28. The production, helmed by director Tom Thayer and choreographer Carolyn Cooper, brings the beloved, bedazzled classic to a local stage.
The leads in the Waterfront’s production, Christopher Peterson, Dave Bootle and Connor Cook, all seem to understand the gravitas and history behind what could have been written off as a pop cabaret. Their embodiment of the characters elevates the material beyond a jukebox musical.
Peterson is a consummate and perpetual star in Key West. Naturally, in the role of Bernadette, a sharp, snark-filled, aging transsexual, Peterson does not disappoint. Bootle gives a balanced performance in his role of voice-of-reason Tick/Mitzi, the drag queen who steers the narrative thrust with his search for familial connections. Cook plays Adam/Felicia with brave abandon and vulnerability. The trio finds support in an enthusiastic cast of 19(!) members, including David Black, who is perfectly cast as an ally picked up along the way. In its two acts, the production stages numerous pop ensemble numbers, replete with appropriately flamboyant visuals.
But “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” is not all glitter and glam — honestly. The original film struck a chord with LGBTQ viewers who were, by the mid-’90s, just beginning to see some light after years in the darkness of political and public oppression and a devastating decade at the height of the AIDS crisis. Audiences needed a shiny, sparkling valentine, and Priscilla was the perfect love letter to a community in need of recovery and recognition. But in order to resonate with a disenchanted population, the original piece needed some grit, some realism to balance the fluff. One infamous scene provides the gut-punch necessary for the film to speak honestly to its intended audience. Waterfront has bravely chosen to leave the scene intact, which contributes to the integrity of the whole and helps place the story in a specific time.
More than 25 years after the film’s initial release, “Priscilla” should be considered a period piece — a snapshot of the struggles and steps forward the LGBTQ community experienced in the mid-’90s. This is perhaps the only place where the stage version (compared to the film) missteps. The musical feels like a buoyant reflection of its 2006 release date, but also aims to come across as timeless, a story that could happen in any era. Except it’s not a story for 2020, or even 2006. The audience occasionally is reminded of progress that’s been made in moments such as the scene in which Tick/Mitzi’s cohorts react in shock to the fact that he was married to a woman and has a child. Allowing those reactions to feel contemporary takes something from the appeal of the original film, in which the characters were messy, beautiful humans just trying to live their lives in an era that had yet to catch up with them. Their flash and dazzle was armor, a way of asserting themselves in a reluctant setting.
If the musical’s only fault is an anachronistic optimism, well, we could certainly do much worse. While the historical context may have been distilled, the costumes, set, choreography, soundtrack and animated performers more than compensate. Perhaps our current cultural and political climate is such that we don’t need a period piece nearly as much as we need to bop and sing along as Christopher Peterson expertly struts and postures to “It’s Raining Men” and “I Will Survive.”
“PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, THE MUSICAL”
8 p.m. through March 28