‘Priscilla’ rolls into Philly

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The iconic film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” is making the jump from screen to stage for the first national tour of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical,” which rolls into town Feb. 26-March 3.

The premise is unchanged: A trio of friends embarks on the road trip of a lifetime as they hop aboard an old bus, christened Priscilla, searching for love and friendship in the middle of the Australian Outback. Wade McCollum stars as drag performer Tick/Mitzi, Scott Willis is Bernadette and Bryan West portrays young upstart drag queen Adam/Felicia.

With more than 500 dazzling 2011 Tony Award-winning costumes and more than 20 dance-floor favorites, the musical version of Priscilla offers fans of the film a n even bigger feast of sights and songs than the film that it is based on.

“I think the music that they bring to the Broadway show definitely adds another layer to the show,” West said. “The costumes as well — as outrageous as they were in the film, they are that much more outrageous on the stage because they had a much bigger budget for the Broadway show. They take the costumes in the movie to the next level.”

West is no stranger to lavish productions, having been on national tours of “Hairspray” and “Wicked.”

But, he said, “Priscilla is a different theatrical animal than those shows. “‘Wicked,’ I used to call it ‘Gone With the Wind’ on stage because it was very grand and drawn-out. It’s dark in moments and much more still than our show. Our show is just production number after production number. This show flies by. It’s like being shot out of a cannon. With ‘Wicked,’ they took a lot longer to develop things but they also had three hours to do that in. So we’re a lot less time than that. I love them both for different reasons.”

One thing West was a stranger to before “Priscilla” was dressing up in drag.

“This is my first time,” he said. “As far as I know, maybe some of the other people have done it on some level, but not on a level this big. So it’s been an interesting journey figuring out the makeup and the wig and how to play it.”

While West said he doesn’t think he has too many personality traits in common with the sometimes-brash Adam/Felicia, he does enjoy playing the character.

“I relate to the shock value of the character,” he said. “I like to throw one-liners and hear people laugh at how I can shock them at the moment. But I think the fact that we’re both around the same age and love performing is about as far as it goes. But it’s fun to play a character that you are different from because you can explore that in a lot of ways.”

He added that all of the characters offer elements that can resonate with the actors and the audience.

“We are all definitely missing something in our lives,” he said of the plight of the show’s main characters. “Bernadette, the transsexual, is looking for a companion. Her boyfriend dies in the beginning of the show and she is left alone. Tick has definitely been missing his child for six years. He hasn’t seen him or talked to him. Me, I’m definitely missing a father figure in my life. That’s where we connect and fill that void with each other. We’re all accomplished performers in our own right. Bernadette has been doing this since the 1970s with ‘Les Girls,’ which is an Australian drag troupe. Tick is definitely on the circuit but I’m bridging the gap between the old form of drag and the new drag, where I actually sing my songs instead of lip-syncing.”

Speaking of lip-syncing, West said there is none of that in the show, even when the characters are supposed to be faking it.

“We’re all singing live,” he said. “Whenever there is lip-syncing happening, there are three divas that descend from the sky and they sing while we lip-sync to them so they are always there. So everything is done live.”

(Ah … if only we could afford to have back-up divas descend from that sky all the time in our regular lives. Remind us to buy lottery tickets so we can make that happen.)

West said the show has been a hit internationally despite the occasional language barrier.

“Every production has its differences,” he said. “Just on a visual level, it’s a spectacle, so that is something that anyone can relate to. Having done other Broadway shows, we have a lot of people from Asia who come over and they can’t understand a word of what’s happening, but as long as you give them colors and costumes, they are loving it.”

West said he doesn’t favor one version of “Priscilla” over the other, as they are very unique experiences with common themes.

“I look at them as two different things,” he said. “Having originated the Broadway show, I have a special place in my heart for this show just because the reaction from audiences is unlike anything I’ve ever been in. The movie had a darker side than the show. It’s a little more raw, which I think is really cool—but then again, we’re doing a Broadway musical. We have some dark moments but it doesn’t linger through the entire show like that. I like them both but I actually consider them different on those levels. I know when I saw [the film] when I was a kid, I was drawn to its outrageousness. It’s in your face, which I love. It’s not hiding anything. We’re not trying to pretend we are not who we are. I think that’s why audiences, whether gay, straight, young or old, they all end up coming away from the show having a great time, because at some point they are relating to something in the show and also the music. Everyone knows all the music, so that there is a barrier that is dropped. The second they hear ‘I Will Survive,’ ‘Hot Stuff’ or ‘True Colors,’ music brings down those barriers.”

While the film has a huge following, West added that, for a significant number of the audience members, the Broadway show is their first exposure to “Priscilla.”

“We have a mix,” he said. “Sometimes people are laughing because they know what’s coming next. But traveling across the country to smaller towns, I think a lot of people are coming who are subscribers who just don’t know what it’s going to be about. But the show is so well-crafted and so well-constructed that it doesn’t matter if you know the movie or not.”

Catch “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical” Feb. 26-March 3 at Kimmel’s Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. For more information or tickets, call 215-790-5847.