Artscapes: ‘Priscilla’ Puts Costumes Center Stage

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Wade McCollum, Scott Willis, Bryan West and Company in the number “I Will Survive” / photo credit Joan Marcus
Wade McCollum, Scott Willis, Bryan West and Company in the number “I Will Survive” / photo credit Joan Marcus

Proving that going spectacularly over the top can sometimes be just plain perfect, Broadway’s blockbuster “Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical” pulls its party bus in to Segerstrom Hall next week packed with over 500 rhinestoned, sequined and feather bedecked costumes ready to dazzle the eyes and scintillate the senses.

Based on the 1994 Academy Award-winning movie of the same name, the story of three friends turned drag queens whose unquenchable quest for love leads them on a glittery, song-strewn road trip across the Australian outback has become a smash-hit brimming with feel-good, sing-along tunes such as “It’s Raining Men,” “Finally,” and “I Will Survive.”

And then there are those now legendary, Tony-award garnering, larger-than-life outfits, as chock-full of wit, fun, and sparkle as the show itself.

Many of the costumes for the Troika Entertainment/Nullarbor Productions Ltd. touring company come directly from the Broadway show, and any that are new have been rebuilt using the exact same material and designs as the originals, something that was “critical” said Troika’s Costume Director Michelle Harrison, in order to maintain the integral look of the award-winning, sartorially sumptuous show.

With so many complicated costumes- including huge headdresses and wigs, underlayers like corsets and hoopskirts, as well as sky-high platforms and boots- and quick as a

Scene from “Priscilla Queen of the Jungle” / photo credit Joan Marcus
Scene from “Priscilla Queen of the Jungle” / photo credit Joan Marcus

wink backstage costume changes, Harrison described the experience of putting such a large wardrobe show together as a “puzzle” that includes figuring out how to package and move the hundreds of costumes, which travel and live backstage in large rolling closets called “gondolas,” as well as training the dressers who travel with them and working with the male actors, many of whom have never worn dresses or heels before.

 “It’s swiftly moving, like the game ‘tetris.’ The show is going to open whether you’re ready or not, and the pieces have to be put together quickly or game over,” she explained. “We use materials like leather, spandex, and rayon, and it’s a challenge every time you sew something because each reacts in a different way. Lots of different expertise is needed, from beading to hot glue gunning to setting rhinestones.”

 “One important thing is that everything has to be as light as possible, because after so long, too much weight will start to break the body down,” she continued. “Equity [actor’s union] has certain standards, so we use Styrofoam in headdresses to hold the shape and the platform and boot heels are hollow to minimize the risk of injury.”

Left to Right Wade McCollum as Mitzi, Scott Willis as Bernadette and Bryan West as Felicia. / photo credit Joan Marcus
Left to Right Wade McCollum as Mitzi, Scott Willis as Bernadette and Bryan West as Felicia. / photo credit Joan Marcus

For ease of entry, the costumes are “rigged,” or cut down the back and fastened with zippers, Velcro and/or snaps, in order to make changes swifter backstage.

With more than 23 costume changes, one person who knows the challenges firsthand is actor Wade McCollum, who plays “Tick/Mitzi” in the touring production.

“It gets pretty crazy,” he agreed, speaking ‘by phone from Houston, Texas, before the show headed to California. “I’m trying to channel my inner ninja: if you’re calm and moving with intent, you can get things done. Now I find myself being very relaxed, and those quick changes become like choreography.”

“For instance, with the ‘Gumby’ outfit I only have 30 seconds to go from full boy to drag creature. As I run off stage there are four people to help me; I strip as quickly as possible, jump into the shoes and run back onstage. It’s kind of like being a race car driver: a fast flurry of action, then shoved back into the race. It can be very intense, so you have to remember to breathe!”

“Some of the headdresses feel a little stifling,” McCollum admitted, “but as crazy as the outfits are they absolutely help you to transform into your character in a different way. From the 60s mod/Goldie Hawn flapper-like flip flop tube dress to the garish, 17th century/ Marie Antoinette corset dress, it’s really fun to explore how to move in these incredible works of art.”

“Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical” comes to Segerstrom Hall at Segerstrom Center for the Arts October 22 through 27. Ticket prices start at $25. For more information (714) 556-2787 or go online to SCFTA.org .

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