If you took ABBA, the Village People and the soundtrack to "Saturday Night Fever" and tossed it into the air, it would fall to the ground as "Priscilla Queen of the Desert."
Those for whom the 1970s disco mirror ball never stopped will feel right at home at "Priscilla," which plays through Aug. 31 at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre. For the rest of us, who have kept our Gloria Gaynor albums and angel flight trousers in deep storage, the show is like a pleasant return to the land of wretched excess.
Thursday's opening-night audience consisted of both -- gentlemen in high-disco duds and other gentlemen dressed in full-tilt Carmen Miranda. Then there were people like me, who had long forgotten where his boogie shoes were.
But for everyone, it was huge fun joining Tick/Mitzi (Wade McCollum), Bernadette (Scott Willis) and Adam/Felicia (Brian West) aboard a tricked-out bus named Priscilla, bringing disco and drag performance to the Australian Outback (whether the people there want it or not). The reason for this throbbing desert road trip to Alice Springs is not just an excuse to dance to seemingly every 1970s radio hit ever recorded. There's also the matter of Tick's 8-year-old son, Benji (Shane Davis), who wants to see his father. Benji's mother and Tick's ex-wife (Christy Faber) calls to extend the invitation, and, oh, she happens to need a good drag act to perform at her casino in the desert.
So off go Tick and his two pals on a trek through the desert, during which they make good friends and angry enemies as they show the rough-hewed locals the finer points of drag entertainment and their often lusty offstage life.
They fight and frolic until the bus breaks down, and they encounter Bob the mechanic (Joe Hart), seemingly the only guy in the Outback who gets what the guys are doing. He fixes the bus and keeps it patched together as he joins the trio for the rest of the trip¿, forming a budding romance with Bernadette.
The musical is adapted from the popular 1994 Australian indie film "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (the film's director, Stephan Elliott, is a co-writer of the musical). And while the story line is generally the same, the musical takes a softer tone and favors more glitz and glam than the film.
So if you're looking for a deep story on stage, "Priscilla" may not be your best bet. Yes, the theme of tolerance comes into play, sometimes sharply. But mostly, these girls, as it's noted in one of the Cyndi Lauper songs featured in the musical, just want to have fun, even if real life sometimes gets in the way. And they do this in a colorful and mostly charming production, that, as one audience member said to me, makes "Mamma Mia" look like Strindberg.
Of course the sets and costumes are fabulous. The bus, centerpiece of most of the action, is tacky and terrific. And the costumes, especially the dance number outfits, are as silly and over the top as anything Cher ever dared to don. Also delightful are the ensemble actors, who portray everything from drag performers to rural folk with an affinity for beer.
The musical, like "Mamma Mia," is built on a dizzying collection of old hits rather than new show tunes. There are tons of them, and each is given a fiery ride by the cast and orchestra. Besides such disco anthems as "Go West," "It's Raining Men," "I Love the Night Life," "Shake Your Groove Thing" and "Boogie Wonderland," the show cleverly mixes in a few surprises -- "A Fine Romance," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" and "Always on My Mind," a touching ballad sung when Tick and Benji meet.
Contact Pat Craig at email@example.com.
By Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Through: Aug. 31
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St (at Hyde), San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (1 intermission)
Advisory: Recommended for ages 13 and up (language, sexual references)
Tickets: $45-$210 (subject to change); 888-746-1799, www.shnsf.com