'Priscilla' takes a cultural ride

Starring in "Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical" hasn't only given Bre Jackson a stronger vocal range and frequent flier miles.

She's also primed to offer encouragement and advice.

Take, for example, the concertgoer who met her after the show ended, admitting that he had a visceral reaction upon seeing a homophobic slur spray-painted on the side of the onstage tour bus. The indignity struck a nerve because he'd been on the receiving end of similar words growing up — a period when he was afraid to be himself.

"I was able to tell him, 'Be who you are. There are people who love you,'" Jackson said.

The 21-year-old Detroit native makes up a third of the show's divas, who sing — in mid-air. She is joined by Brit West, 26, and Emily Afton, 28, as they belt out numbers, which the musical's drag queens lip-sync 20 to 50 feet below, onstage.

"It's probably the best entrance of my career," West said. "Who else gets to drop in at 50 feet and open with 'It's Raining Men?' It doesn't get better than that."

Based on the 1994 movie "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" — which started out as a sleeper, but has since attained cult status — the musical spotlights two drag queens and a transsexual woman traversing the Australian Outback in a dilapidated bus nicknamed "Priscilla." Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott based their book on Elliott's screenplay.

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The bus travels on

"Priscilla" opened on Broadway in March 2011 and closed in June the next year. Actors are now a few weeks away from the conclusion of the show's first national tour.

The company kicked off in Minneapolis on Jan. 8 — making stops in St. Louis, Chicago, Miami, Houston and elsewhere — and it will be curtains down in November in Seattle.

Before that, though, guests in Costa Mesa can take in oversized cupcakes, dancing paintbrushes, emus and even a dress made of flip-flops at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts from Tuesday through Sunday.

"There are some great dance numbers in this production along with a very talented cast, and there is a real sense of exuberance throughout," said center President Terry Dwyer about the musical, which launches the venue's 2013-14 Broadway season. "Not to mention, there are hundreds of spectacular costumes to behold.

"What really is at its core is the story of enduring friendships and family bonds. It's a show that is fun and funny, but it also touches the heart."

Before the event, attendees who gather in the lobby of the orchestra level at Segerstrom Hall can take photos with a cutout of the bus, plus boas, hats and more, create a personal drag name, view costume sketches and learn about the creation by Troika Entertainment and Nullarbor Productions Ltd. at a "Screen & Stage" exhibit.

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Up in the air

For Jackson, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, flying around for most of the show wasn't easy — she's afraid of heights.

But after spending a nearly monthlong "tech period" in Peoria, Ill., she grew accustomed to being harnessed and suspended in the air, all while donning heavy-duty outfits.

Jackson remarked about her first time in rehearsal, "Whoo! I was scared out of my mind." Tension was only relieved by crew members who had the actors laughing throughout the experience.

The divas rely on muscle memory, she explained, constantly reminding themselves of how they'd perform or behave on solid ground.

"Up there, with the lights and curtains, it's a part of the theater I've never been in before," said West, erupting in laughter at the thought of a performance in which the fun factor was upped by her skirt getting momentarily snagged on a rotating set piece.

"The other divas were flying around, beautifully, and I was just hanging around. I felt like the 'reject diva' swinging like that."

Afton finds that the show's charm is heightened by its original, Tony Award-winning costumes — all 500 of them.

"It's my job, but sometimes I have to look around and pinch myself," she said.

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'Sort of touchy'

Bryan West, who portrays Adam/Felicia, has 26 costume changes — the most in the show — while the divas switch garb about 12 times. It's as if a second show is running backstage with people stepping in and out of gear, many simultaneously lending their voices to the ensemble's songs.

No matter whether the divas are clad in two-piece strapless mermaid gowns, sequined jackets with puff sleeves, stiff collars or feathered dresses with 2-foot-tall, red champagne-cork-shaped wigs, each ensemble reflects a sharp eye for detail. While making her look like the "ultimate woman," they're also very heavy, West quipped.

"Everyone wants to look skinny onstage," she said. "But it's impossible when you have a harness under your gown. It creates these curves that are not on our bodies!"

Afton, who gains a sense of contentment by enacting a tale about empathy, acceptance and relationships — unconventional though they may be — said the show has received a heartening response from viewers.

Night after night, people jump to their feet to applaud the cast's efforts. And even in places where the response is a bit "tepid," individual guests have expressed their enjoyment, she noted.

"The subject matter is sort of touchy with some people," said the actress, who grew up watching old musicals with her mother and is enamored of Judy Garland, Julie Andrews and Gene Kelly. "But it's presented so well that it's really easy to relate to."

If You Go

What: "Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical"

Where: Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22 till Oct. 25, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 27

Cost: Starting at $25

Information: http://www.SCFTA.org

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