Review: ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ at Kensington Arts Theatre

Priscilla Queen of the Desert started life as a film by Stephan Elliott who adapted it into a ’70s jukebox musical with Allan Scott. The ambitious and enthusiastic community production at Kensington Arts Theatre was directed by John Nunemaker with musical direction by Valerie A. Higgs.

Jon Simmons, Larry Munsey, and Gregory Wilczynski. Photo by McLaughlin Photography.

The musical begins with Tick (Gregory Wilczynski) getting in touch with the wife from whom he has been separated for several years asking him to come perform at her remote Australian resort. The couple has a son together who would also like to finally meet his father. Tick recruits his friend and fellow performer Felicia/Adam (Jon Simmons). Joining them is also a grande dame of performance, a trans woman named Bernadette who has just lost her boy-toy of a husband. At loose ends, she joins them on their adventure out west in their converted bus, nicknamed Priscilla.

The production rests on the lovely yet broad shoulders of Larry Munsey in the role of Bernadette. His singing is lovely in the trios with Wilczynski and Simmons “True Colors” and “We Belong.” He plays the comedy and the tender moments equally well, as Bernadette finds love and plays the protective friend for Tick and Adam when they get into trouble in the boondocks. Munsey was the heart, soul, and performance highlight of the production.

Summer Hill, Temple Fortson, and Kristin Franco. Photo by McLaughlin Photography.

The disco and pop hits range from the irresistibly fun “Raining Men,” to the schmaltzy “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” to the incomprehensible “MacArthur Park.” These and so many other favorites were performed by live musicians who, at times, weren’t quite up to the score. When the drag performers lip-synced, the voices were provided by the very talented three divas – played by Temple Fortson, Kristin Franco, and Summer Hill.

As a show that takes its visual style and poppy sensibility from the world of drag, Priscilla demands zip and glitz. The cast and crew obviously worked very hard and were having a lot of fun. That being said, much of the chorus seemed a bit lost during the choreography by Rikki Howie Lacewell. The production also suffered from some sound and microphone problems and a couple of wardrobe malfunctions, but the cast plowed on.

The set designed by Bill Brown concealed the titular bus behind a glittering curtain for much of the show with basic set pieces coming on and off as needed. Portions of the show were staged on an upper-level platform which, from my seat about a third of the way back in the house, resulted in the performers’ faces being concealed by the lighting rig. Scenes staged inside Priscilla were often hard to see, either due to shadows or a supporting beam.

Costumers Shemika Berry and Rikki Howie Lacewell had their work cut out for them with this campy, bright show. Some of the costume choices were a little confusing (why were the guys in that bar all dressed in overcoats?), but the leads’ finale costumes rose to the glittery challenge.

Kensington Arts Theatre’s Priscilla might be less Sydney Opera House and more Outback Steakhouse, but fans of ‘70s and ‘80s pop and camp will have fun.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert  plays through May 26, 2018, at Kensington Arts Theatre performing at Kensington Town Center – 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, call (240) 621-0528, or purchase them online.