Old Priscilla is full of eye candy, and she’s got cupcakes that look good enough to eat.
That’s the playful promise from Broadway Sacramento’s season opener, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Based on the 1994 break-out movie, the musical details the journey undertaken by a trio of drag performers – two gay men and a transsexual woman – as they cross Australia’s western desert in a run-down bus named Priscilla to perform at a club in Alice Springs as a favor for a friend.
The first national tour of the Broadway hit makes its Sacramento debut Tuesday and, according to Gillian Austin, the show’s wardrobe supervisor, it’s “a feast for the eyes” with more than 500 distinct costumes, including actor-sized cupcakes, paint brushes and cockatoos, not to mention kangaroos, emus, lizards and a dress made of flip-flops.
Stuffed to the brim with memorable pop songs, glossy production numbers and more flashy stage outfits than any traveling closet could truly hold, it’s also about the spiritual journey undertaken by the three main characters, who are seeking both understanding from the wider world and a sense of belonging to a family.
But mostly, there are costumes – and accessories. According to Austin, the company travels with three wardrobe dressers, specialized costume stage workers who assist the actors with costume changes and make sure that all the ornate apparel is in order and ready to go. The company hires an additional 12 local dressers in each city.
“Every time we get to a new city, we have ‘Priscilla’ school with textbooks full of pictures,” she said. “We spend a lot of time with the dressers educating them on how to do the show: How to put actors in the paintbrush, how to do a cupcake, and the Gumbies, which are the costumes with the big feet.”
Three of the dressers –generally more experienced people, Austin said – work with the lead actors, who have the most frequent costume changes. In addition to experienced, these dressers must be physically prepared for extreme wardrobe work.
“They also have to be limber,” Austin said, “because there are several changes that happen on the bus and the dressers are hidden inside for that.”
The show calls for the bus to spin several times while the dressers are inside, which means they must be able to get into hiding spots and stay out of the audience’s view for 10 to 15 minutes.
They’ve also got to be prepared to handle a range of costumes that, in some cases, resemble a menagerie.
In the finale, for instance, “everyone is dressed as plants and animals from Australia. We have the lizards – those were in the movie – as well as emus, kangaroos, and cockatoos,” Austin said.
And in the production number that accompanies the song “Go West,” in addition to “a lot of cowboys and cowgirls, there’s also an homage to the Village People, so we have the Indian chief in there, a sailor, a construction worker and the cop.”
Then there are the lovely cupcake costumes, which have some potential for onstage trouble.
“The people in the cupcake costumes can easily lose their balance, because the cupcakes are six feet in diameter,” Austin said. If the actors fall in them, “you have to be careful, because [they] can’t get back up.”
In fact Austin said, there are so many costuming details in “Priscilla” that most people will miss some of them the first time they see the show.
“There’s a lot of hidden drag in the show,” she said, “secret drag that you wouldn’t know if you weren’t looking for it. The background characters will be men dressed as women or women dressed as men.”
“It’s so overwhelming, you can’t take it all in at one go,” she said. “If you’re crazy about costumes, you might want to see it more than once.”
But without planning ahead, that may be difficult to do. Richard Lewis, Broadway Sacramento’s executive producer and the president of California Musical Theatre, told The Bee that tickets are selling “very briskly” for “Priscilla,” but “good seats are still available.”
“I think Sacramento is going to embrace this show, and I think that will be reflected when people attend the show and notice that, by the way, the theater’s full,” Lewis said.
You can bet that the dressers’ hands will be full as well.
“You get bragging rights if you’ve dressed ‘Priscilla,’” Austin said. “If you can dress this (show), you can dress anything.”