Let’s remember that while Full House Theater Productions’ staging of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” a musical about two drag queens and a transgender woman searching for love and acceptance of self and from others, is being shown in Manila this year, countries left and right have been legalizing homosexual marriage while the Philippines remains the only country left in the entire world that has no divorce proceedings for heterosexual marriage.
Now, if you are looking for comedy with ’70s and ’80s disco and radio pop hits festooned with glitter and feathers, this show delivers.
Literary and theatrical purists needn’t fret. If, during Shakespeare’s time, male actors portrayed female characters who cross-dress as males, here we have a male actor who portrays a trans woman who dresses up in female drag. How’s that for a 21st-century twist? Hi, Bill!
The musical, with book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, showcases Jon Santos and Red Concepcion in very strong acting form.
The seasoned drag queen, Santos as Ralph/Bernadette, versus the young upstart drag princess, Concepcion as Adam/Felicia, on a road trip: Hilarity ensues. But only because these two work hard at filling in their very high heels with energy, earnestness and fabulousness.
They don’t talk with a lisp. They choose an accent they can maintain (no morphing accents here). They don’t ape their songs; they sing their songs—with heart. They set up their punchlines with correct timing. They don’t put on an affected caricature of their characters; they become their characters.
Concepcion is an unfaltering powerball of energy, cackles and sass. It doesn’t hurt that he has a cute tush, too. Santos is not the strongest singer, but audiences don’t care a bit since he creates a Bernadette so sincere and believable that her elegance and gravitas shine through to the hilt.
Michael Williams and OJ Mariano, both competent performers, are severely underutilized in this show. Mariano has one spoken line! Audiences would be much better off if either one of them played (or if both alternated) the role of Tick/Mitzi, the character that serves as the impetus for this adventure.
But due to Leo Valdez’s ineffectual execution of the role, which drags the show’s momentum, the character’s dramatic arc now merely serves as forgettable narrative bookends to this fun, fierce journey.
Color and vitality
The look and feel of the production, courtesy of Jaime del Mundo’s direction, Jo Tecson’s set design, Edgar San Diego’s costume design, Shakira Villa-Syme’s lighting design and Nancy Crowe’s choreography, has a campy, tacky, kitschy vibe that, strangely enough, works!
To wit, there is that opening number with a gaggle of backup dancers twirling their umbrellas, reminiscent of lunchtime variety shows. There are costumes that are (lovingly) inspired by Sto. Niño statues and ati-atihan garb. It’s all topped off by a hokey Powerpoint presentation that looks like it was made by a third grader.
Here is a show about drag queens that doesn’t quite have the sheen and sophistication of a Vegas or Moulin Rouge showgirl act, but rather, the rawness, color and vitality of the corner beauty parlor that has linoleum floors, pin lights left over from last Christmas and a plastic fortune plant; plus the loudness and pomp of the annual local barangay gay pageant, all mixed in with the gaudy, paid-by-our-taxes, imported street lamps of Roxas Boulevard.
In other words, the aesthetic is Pinoy na Pinoy! And it triumphs because it is unblinkingly (but with false lashes, of course) and unapologetically so.
Musical director Inday Echevaria has guided the ensemble into a strong singing unit and they execute Crowe’s pop, energetic choreography with gusto. Take note, these are men who sing and dance in “regular” clothes and drag; and the women, too, are in drag. Androgyny and ambiguity abound.
Pinky Marquez in male get-up and a mullet is a joyful and hilarious sight (this is the woman who showed audiences full back nudity in Rep’s “The Graduate”!). Bituin Escalante’s powerful voice booms throughout the theater as one of the three divas who provide the drag queens’ sync-voices. Listen carefully, Bernadette gives the audience a Drag 101 lesson on why drag queens lip-sync.
The church choir at the funeral in Act One, while fun, feels a tad illogical; perhaps singing mourners in drag instead next time? Unless church choirs at funerals is a thing now?
San Diego’s costumes are colorful, though there are a few ensembles that seem ill-proportioned, making the leads look squat, like men in drag instead of real drag queens. He also gives a nod to Madonna (whose songs were used in the Broadway version instead of Kylie Minogue’s, which was in the West End version and now in the Manila staging) via one of his costumes for Concepcion.
The production smartly frames the very long stage with a false proscenium, focusing the audience’s sightlines and the acting space to the center. This also makes the theater’s two flanking video screens less distracting (though they seem to have been moved a bit farther to the sides as well). Someone please banish these two pointless monstrosities permanently.
Students who ride a school bus or employees who ply Edsa on commuter buses will tell you that the side panels of the eponymous bus, Priscilla, needs more details (such as rivets and grooves) and paint texturing (to make it look less like plywood and more like metal). But then again, if we’re going for kitsch, this fits the bill.
The production employs the theater’s video cyclorama to cinematic effect (a wink at the musical’s provenance: Elliott’s 1994 film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) when it becomes the desert backdrop, moving in sync with the rotating bus. The animation is clean and the perspective is correct, unlike previous ones used in this theater that looked like desktop computer video games from the mid-’90s.
The giant stiletto that appears on top of the bus (in the movie as well as the other international versions of the musical) couldn’t be reproduced in Manila due to licensing agreements. However, Del Mundo’s tongue-in-cheek, hilarious and very theatrical staging of this scene completely upends the iconic prop. Queens couldn’t be any prouder of his fabulous idea.
Full House Theater Productions’ “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” runs until July 13 at Resorts World Manila’s Newport Performing Arts Theater, and will play in Singapore in October 2014. Visit rwmanila.com or call 9088833.