SEATTLE REVIEW: Adventures Of Janessa, Queen Of Bainbridge Island, On Her Way To See PRISCILLA!

Published on November 19, 2017 by   ·   No Comments

Priscilla 03This review is not only a fond recollection of a show that I attended and thoroughly enjoyed, it’s also a chance for me to reflect on the wonders of social media to forge connections between people.  On one of my first work trips to Seattle in October of 2015, I was looking around for fun, interesting theatre, and I happened across a Facebook ad for the Seattle Musical Theatre’s production of Reefer Madness.  I loved the movie musical with Campbell Scott and Kristen Bell (I’ve since hosted a late night movie event with the original propaganda film and the musical!) and I was dying to see a live production.  The catch?  Opening night just happened to be the same day that I was flying back to Grand Forks.

Because I have little shame and pretty much no boundaries, I immediately started Facebook stalking anyone that I could find whose name was connected with the show.  I sent several messages asking about the possibility of attending the night before opening whether it was a preview or a final dress, most of which were either filtered into the spam folder or politely ignored (probably assuming that I was mentally unbalanced, a not entirely unfounded accusation!), but I did get a response back from the actress playing Mary Lane who connected me with the director, Steven Fogell, and he gave me the go ahead to crash their final tech rehearsal.  If you want to check out what happened with that show, you can find my review HERE.

Priscilla 05Not long after the production was over, I got a message from another member of the cast, Michelle Abad who played Miss Placard, who apologized that she didn’t see my message sooner and was glad I was able to attend the show.  I remembered when I first saw her how much she reminded me of my bestie Amy D, and both clearly share a love of theatre and performing.  Michelle and I kept in touch through Facebook, talking about makeup products we both enjoyed and shows we’d love to see or be in.  If I was going to Seattle and had some free time, I tried to set up a couple of opportunities for us to meet in person, but scheduling never quite worked out.  Earlier this year, I was coming to Seattle just after a show she was in closed and I was bummed that I didn’t get to see it; she said, “Hey, if you happen to make it back to town in October, you should come see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert!  I’ll even get you a ticket.”  And as luck would have it, a project opened up for me in Seattle, perfectly planned for the week the show opened at Bainbridge Performing Arts.

The queens in Priscilla set off on their adventure in a rickety old tour bus; for my adventure, I got to navigate the Washington State Ferry system.  I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that nothing makes me feel more like a small town rube than trying to navigate public transportation.

Bainbridge Island is a lovely community; I arrived early enough to get dinner at the Spice Route, an Indian restaurant, and then walk back to the Performing Arts building in time to enjoy the artwork in the lobby, have a quick drink, and then get seated.

The seat Michelle got for me was perfection: it was stadium-style seating and I was in row F, right in the middle.  I had a perfect view of the stage proper as well as the small areas on either side utilized during transitions.

Birds

Now, Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is one of my favorite movies of all time; what I’ve always appreciated about it (compared to it’s contemporary To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar) is that all three of the main drag performers are given whole lives and unique identities.  You get a sense of where they come from, who their families are, and they all represent different identities related to their sexuality and gender identity.  I was happy to see that the stage production retains this complexity of characterization; in fact, the stage production is a pretty faithful reproduction of the film, including a lot of its most recognizable scenes, with the minor change of substituting a Kylie Minogue medley for the film’s incessant refrain of Abba songs (with Abba featuring in its own jukebox musical, Mamma Mia!, it’s not surprising that those songs would be changed out).

Priscilla 06The basic rundown of the story is that three drag performers, Tick/Mitzi (Troy Wageman), Bernadette (Matty McCaslin), and Adam/Felicia (Bo Mellinger), take off from their job in a Sydney nightclub to play a gig at a resort hotel in rural Alice Springs.  What Tick fails to mention before the trip starts is that the hotel is owned by his wife Marion (Ellen Dessler) and part of the reason for the trip is for him to take over care of his son Benji (Trey Field-Bennett).  Along the way they meet a wild cast of characters as the locales get more and more off the beaten track: mechanic Bob (Doug Knoop) who keeps their sketchy bus moving and joins them on their adventures as his attraction to Bernadette increases (he fondly remembers seeing a pre-transition Young Bernadette, played by Cailin Mackenzie, in a Les Girls impersonation show), karaoke bar patron Shirley (Michelle Abad) who tries to turn the trio out of the bar before being put in her place by a tart-tongued Bernadette, and Bob’s “mail order bride” Cynthia (Melissa Fleming) who interrupts an impromptu drag performance with her infamous ping pong ball act (if you haven’t seen the film, this scene is hilarious, and the production recreated it in a wonderfully creative way!).

In order to keep the feel of a traditional drag performance with lip-syncing, the show utilizes 3 “Divas” (Hannah Knapp-Jenkins, Emily Welter, and Melissa Fleming) who sing many of the disco classics that the queens then use for their performances.  It’s a fun conceit that allows these three women to show off their singing chops with the queens strutting their stuff and highlighting the theatricality of the art of drag.

Priscilla 07

I also appreciated that even more than the film, Bernadette becomes really central to the arc of the story.  Bernadette, in addition to being a drag performer, is also a trans woman and her presence and experiences in the show help illustrate the differences between two identities, transsexual and drag queen, that are often erroneously conflated by unknowing audience members.  She starts the show mourning the loss of her young husband and ends by embarking on a new relationship with Bob.  Their romance is sweet, and there is no worrying over what this might mean in terms of Bob’s sexuality; the show recognizes that Bernadette is just as much a woman as Bob’s current wife Cynthia, though perhaps better suited to his lifestyle and temperament.  It’s a message that so often gets lost in our sensationalist culture of tabloid headlines and misleading story leads.

Priscilla 01The entire cast did an amazing job bringing life to their characters and the situations, and that bus set piece was like a force of nature: it spun and turned and helped focus the action where needed, transforming throughout the show.  The music is like a soft, warm hug from an AM gold radio station with a few oddball pieces thrown in (like “Thank God I’m A Country Boy”), and the costumes by Barbara Klingberg paid amazing homage to the film while also creating a unique and cohesive story for this production.  The band, under the direction of Music Director Brandon Peck, did an amazing job creating the auditory environment, and the entire cast sang their parts beautifully.  With all of these pieces, Director Jessica Low created a wonderful production that was campy and overstated in the best possible ways, soft when it needed to be, and thoroughly engaging.

I especially enjoyed the antics of Miss Understanding (Gregory Conn), the drag show emcee and familiar face in the chorus in many scenes; his accent occasionally went on a little bit of a walkabout, but he had the perfect sort of winking playfulness that was the hallmark of a good drag show before they all devolved into pageants and competitions and vicious bloodbaths.  He was a little bawdy, toed the line of propriety, and had so much fun throughout the entire production.  And perhaps I’m a little biased, but I also thought Abad’s drunken karaoke rendition of “I Love The Nightlife” was hysterical!

In a world where social media constantly reminds us of the worst that humanity has to offer (word of advice – never read the comments section!), it’s nice to think that sometimes you can use it to create new friendships that open up new creative avenues and meaningful interactions, if you’re willing to be brave and maybe seem just a little bit creepy.

And that’s definitely an adventure worth taking.

All photos in this review are from the Bainbridge Performing Arts production except for the movie still featuring the film's cast in blue headdresses.

All photos in this review are from the Bainbridge Performing Arts production except for the movie still featuring the film’s cast in blue headdresses.

 

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