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HIGH NOTES OF JOY AND INTROSPECTION: ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ is nothing shy of brilliant

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Opera House Theatre Company opens their 2017 season with a fabulous “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”—and it’s fabulous!

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Opera House Theatre Company opens their 2017 season with a fabulous “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” The stage musical is adapted from the 1994 film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”—a jukebox musical filled with joy and camp. In short: it’s everything needed to lift spirits at the end of a long week.

TRANSCENDING TRANSPHOBIA: Jeff Phillips (center) plays a transgendered, retired Les Girl entertainer who falls in love with Bob (Kim Ewonus) on a road trip with Adam (Blaine Mower, far left) and Tick (Jason Aycock, far right). Photo by EJM Photography

TRANSCENDING TRANSPHOBIA: Jeff Phillips (center) plays a transgendered, retired Les Girl entertainer who falls in love with Bob (Kim Ewonus) on a road trip with Adam (Blaine Mower, far left) and Tick (Jason Aycock, far right). Photo by EJM Photography

“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” follows the adventures of two drag queens: Tick, stage-name “Mitzi Mitosis” (Jason Aycock), and Adam, stage-name “Felicia Jollygoodfellow” (Blaine Allen Mower). They embark on a cross-country Australia trip with their transgendered friend, Bernadette Basinger (Jeff Phillips). All three are seasoned performers in drag shows in Sydney, and in different ways, all are in sort of a rut. But Tick has been offered a gig in a casino in the interior of Australia, so in an incredibly decked-out bus dubbed “Pricilla,” the trio head out in search of change.

Things are slightly complicated by Tick’s admission their new employer is actually his wife, Marion (Heather Setzler). And so begins a chaotic and cathartic journey across Australia, illustrated by the song “Go West.” The first stop finds them at a rather unwelcoming bar dominated by Shirley (Sarah Holcomb), who is the antithesis of everything the trio hold sacred about femininity. Holcomb might take the cake for comedy in this already uproarious show with her rendition of “I Love the Nightlife.” It is a study in contrast.

But the journey is only going to get stranger. They inevitably break down in the middle of nowhere. However, through unexpected and mildly divine intervention, a warm-hearted  mechanic named Bob (Kim Ewonus) comes to their rescue. Is it possible Bob actually remembers Bernadette performing in the Les Girls drag show years ago? Oh, he does … and recounts with detail the experience, conjuring up Lanny Scott as the younger Bernadette in a lovey rendition of “A Fine Romance.”

Though Bob seems too good to be true to our trio, his personal life is far from perfect. Things are not great with his wife, Katya (Kendra Goehring-Garrett). I almost didn’t recognize Goehring-Garrett as the angry, vulgar Katya. Even when she played Debbie in “Debbie Does Dallas,” she never came across as this raunchy. As a performance, it is memorable, incredibly funny and perfect for the show.

Could Bob and Bernadette each find a second chance? Maybe with each other? Tick and Adam are determined to set the mood, and even produce a cake and Champagne from the depths of the bus. That sets Aycock up for possibly one of the best visual/lyrical moments of comedy I have seen in a long time. “Someone left the cake out in the rain / I don’t think that I can take it…”

Ewonus’ turn as Bob will renew everyone’s basic faith in humanity. Jeff Phillips’ Bernadette is really the panther in calico dress. For all the frumpiness that age brings, she is still sharp as a tack with her dance moves. It has taken a long time for Bernadette to both find and create herself—the strength which comes from that is powerful. Perhaps her greatest strength is the giant-sized heart she tries unsuccessfully to hide from those around her. All the picking and bickering with Adam is a false front of a little jealousy about Adam’s beautiful, young body and incredible talent.

Mower comes very close to upstaging his two co-stars with his gymnastics and splits. He’s is so beautiful (and so convincing in a wig!), it is hard not to stare. Add music, and he is clearly in a personal state of elation. Though I have seen him onstage for years, I can’t recall a role that gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his comedic abilities with as free a hand as this one. When he and Lauren Maasch pay homage to Maria Callas at Ayers Rock, Maasch’s beautiful voice counterpoints Mower’s absurdities to make for a short one-act comedy all of its own.

“Triple-threat” is an understatement for Mower, as indeed it is for all of the trio. Ah, but what of Gene Kelly doppelganger Jason Aycock as a drag queen? From “Say a Little Prayer” in the first scene to his Elvis impersonation for “Always on My Mind,” the audience can’t help rooting for him. We know he can sing and dance, but can he make it across the Australian desert? The answer for him is the answer for many of us: only with the help, love and support of his friends. With grace and determination, we follow his journey and the multi-sided struggle with which he grapples.

When the trio make it to “We Belong” for their finale—the culmination of this journey—their combined three-part harmony really is the perfect metaphor for this show.

Of course, Priscilla’s character is a set piece, but she is incredibly dynamic! Terry Collins’ entire scenic design is fun and fabulous, but the bus is visually quite a stunner. She is worth the price of admission.

With characters like these, the costumes must be worthy of their sensational selves. Oh! My! Juli and Selina Harvey have outdone themselves. Just when I think the costumes can’t get even more over-the-top, they do. From the flip-flop print dress that Aycock dons, to the incredible sheer-lace number with an over skirt Lanny Scott wears as Young Bernadette, it is all powerful. Then the casino floor show brings out a whole new level of “what in heaven’s name?” With the trio dressed as snack food, complete with matching wigs. The entire ensemble is swathed in an array of visual saturation that makes the stage feel like a kaleidoscope.

With HB2 still under discussion in the North Carolina legislature and the roll back of protections for trans youth by the White House making headlines, this show couldn’t be more timely. But the themes are far from exclusive to a transgendered or gay experience. Searching for personal truth, strength and learning to trust the people who love them are struggles everyone faces at different points in their lives. “Priscilla” cloaks those struggles in glitter and camp, but that doesn’t make them any different or less real.

This cast really hits the notes of joy, introspection and everything in between. For an evening of powerful art to connect, heal and enliven, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” is the ticket.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Mar. 10-12, 8 p.m. or Sun., 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall
310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $27-$32

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