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Dressing drag divas |
Theater & Arts

Dressing drag divas

Michael Miller
| Saturday, March 2, 2013 9:00 p.m
Wade McCollum (center) and Company in “MacArthur Park” from “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical.” Credit: Joan Marcus
McCollum as Mitzi, Scott Willis as Bernadette and Bryan West as Felicia in the number “I Love the Nightlife” from “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical.” Credit: Joan Marcus
Wade McCollum, Scott Willis, Bryan West and Company in the number “I Will Survive” from “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical.” Credit: Joan Marcus
McCollum, Bryan West and Scott Willis and Company in the number “Colour My World” in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical.” Credit: Joan Marcus

Transforming actors from cupcake to casino client in less than 30 seconds is only one of the challenges for the cast and crew of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical.”

There may be musicals with bigger casts or more costumes and wigs or more quick costume changes. But the national touring production that begins performances here Tuesday as a presentation of PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh is in a class all its own.

“Lots of shows have big casts. With ‘Priscilla’ everything is big,” says costume director Michelle Harrison, who is in charge of maintaining costumes for the tour. “This show is all about costumes.”

The story follows a trio of guys — two drag queens and a transsexual — as they drive a brightly colored school bus across Australia to perform at a hotel in the outback. Along the way, they rehearse numbers, create costumes and have encounters that inspire flamboyant and fanciful dance numbers.

Divas in sequined dresses and towering beehive hairdos descend from the skies.

Men in tropically colored platform boots or ostrich-feather headdresses get down to dance-floor classics such as “I Will Survive,” “Material Girl” and “Boogie Wonderland,” and the show goes through two or three pounds of glitter a month.

Cast members transform from dangerous-looking outbackers or mild-mannered casino guests to fantasy figures such as oversized, hot-pink-handled paint brushes.

“ ‘Priscilla’ is like no other show I have ever worked,” says Kaylan Paisley, the hair and makeup supervisor, who has worked on touring productions of “Legally Blonde,” “101 Dalmatians” and “Cats.”

A typical national tour uses 16 gondolas — closet-like rolling travel cases — to transport costumes and wigs.

“Priscilla” fills 40 with the 500 costume pieces that appear onstage every night. And that doesn’t count the boxes that contain the show’s 60 wigs and an eclectic assortment of mammoth, imaginative hats and headdresses.

There’s a costume change for every scene, Harrison says, and there’s no time to travel to dressing rooms and back. So a crew of 11 wardrobe and hair people stand by backstage to transform actors was soon as they exit the stage.

The show’s fastest costume transformation takes less than 30 seconds, so everything is laid out and ready to go and costumes are designed to speed changes.

To keep those changes on schedule, crew members hired in each city to augment those traveling with the show need extra training.

“Anyone will know how to put on a dress. But how many people know how to put on a cupcake?” Harrison says.

Some changes also involve makeup. It wouldn’t do to send a tough-looking outback male back on stage still showing flecks of lip glitter from his previous role as a showgirl.

The quick-fix solution is to kiss it off onto clear plastic packing tape, then swipe the lips with baby wipe, Paisley says. “Packing tape is genius. We go through about 12 rolls a week,” she says.

Costumes and wigs for “Priscilla” also require special maintenance techniques.

“Maintenance is huge,” Paisley says. “We have a very strict schedule to keep everything looking wonderful.”

Wig crew members arrive 90 minutes before show time to refresh or repair hair pieces. Wardrobe crew may be familiar with tasks such as hot-gluing replacement feathers on a showgirl headdress or replacing sequins on gowns.

But a thigh-length dress created from orange and pink flip-flops doesn’t come with a use-and-care tag. Crews need special instructions on caring for the show’s more singular costumes such as oversized, foam “Gumby feet” worn over shoes that have to be checked for wear and repair after each performance.

“You can’t put a cupcake under a sewing machine,” Harrison says.

Harrison takes pride in the fact that most audience members never realize what it takes to bring “Priscilla” to the stage.

“In theory, they never even realize there is so much work involved. I just want them enjoying what they are seeing,” Harrison says. “It’s such a fun show, you can’t help but watch and appreciate how fun and beautiful it is.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

On the road

Road trips are often a journey of discovery, whether you’re travelling to see the world’s largest ball of twine or learning something about yourself or others.

In the 1994 movie “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” three friends who are drag queens embark on a trek across Australia to play shows at a casino in the desert.

Below are a dozen other movies about families, friends and even strangers who embark on trips with set destinations and unexpected revelations. Can you match their intended destinations with the titles and descriptions?

1. “Identity Theft” (2013). An average guy and family man (Jason Bateman) has his credit and job ruined by identity theft. He travels to Florida to bring the crook (Melissa McCarthy) back to face charges in ………..

2. “Road Trip” (2000). Josh accidentally mails the wrong video tape to his girlfriend, Tiffany. To intercept it before it reaches her mailbox he and three of his college buddies drive 1,800 miles to her home in ……..

3. “Thelma and Louise” (1991). Thelma (Susan Sarandon), an unhappily married woman, and her waitress friend Louise (Geena Davis) head out on the highway. When police pursue them for killing a potential rapist they decide to head their convertible toward …

4. “Easy Rider” (1969). Two counter-culture dudes (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) experience the good, the bad and the ugly while on a motorcycle journey to …………

5. “Rain Man” (1988). When the autistic, but brilliant, Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) refuses to board an airplane, Charlie (Tom Cruise) rents a car. The adult brothers get to know each other while heading for Charlie’s home in …..

6. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987). Bad weather and worse luck plague a businessman (Steve Martin) and a chatty salesman (John Candy) who reluctantly share a rented car to get home for Thanksgiving in …

7. “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983). Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) and his family encounter epic obstacles and annoying relatives on their cross country journey to …

8. “Sideways” (2004). Miles (Paul Giamatti) treats his about-to-be-married friend Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) to a road trip. The two middle-aged men embark on a weeklong tour of …

9. “Bucket List” (2007). Two men (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) with terminal cancer leave the hospital behind to enjoy places and experiences on their wish lists. Their final destination is ….

10. “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006). The entire Hoover family, including Grandpa (Alan Arkin), pile into the family’s Volkswagen bus to lend their support to 7-year-old Olive’s quest to win the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant in …

11. “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). Dorothy (Judy Garland), her dog Toto and three new-found friends have life changing adventures as they surmount obstacles on their way to …

12. “Grapes of Wrath” (1940). After their home is taken from them, The Joad family leaves the Oklahoma Dust Bowl on a quest for jobs and a better life in ….


A. Mexico

B. Napa Valley, Calif.

C. Chicago

D. The Emerald City

E. Walley World

F. New Orleans

G. Denver

H. The Himalayas

I. Los Angeles

J. California

K. Austin, Texas

L. Redondo Beach, Calif.


1. G

2. K

3. A

4. F

5. I

6. C

7. E

8. B

9. H

10. L

11. D

12. J

Categories: Theater Arts
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