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Bus named Priscilla is a million-dollar baby and ‘Queen’ of a flamboyant traveling show

Submitted by on Mar 18, 2013 – 10:19 pm

Preview: Scott Willis plays Bernadette in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” a national touring production presented by Broadway in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre March 19-30.

By Nancy Malitz

The bus has a name. Priscilla. And the Priscilla that’s coming to Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre is the same ostentatious vehicle with the glittering high heel on top that once revolved on a Broadway stage.

“The original creators didn’t think it could be done, but that’s what they said about ’42nd Street,’ which I also toured in,” says Scott Willis, who stars as the aging transsexual performing artist Bernadette in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” “But when it’s time to shuffle off to Buffalo, they always find a way to do it.”

Priscilla is the dilapidated “budget Barbie camper van” that three friends drive to the Australian outback, where one of Bernadette’s drag queen buddies has a date with a former wife and the son they once produced. The road trip itself, with frequent breakdowns requiring serious costume disco therapy and star supporting roles for Priscilla, is half the fun.

“It’s a million dollar bus,” says Willis. “They had to trim it down a little bit so it could be transported, but they saved it along with lot of the original Broadway costumes and set components. The bus comes apart in three or four pieces, and it has to be carried into the houses on these heavyweight dollies and then lifted by mechanical pulley into place. We were in Philadelphia last week playing the Academy of Music, and one of those dollies actually scraped the doorway.”

Ouch. That grand old auditorium, designed in the gilded horseshoe style of a European opera house, is rich on tradition but a little low on technical amenities. “It was a very tight squeeze but it barely got in, which is good, because otherwise we would have had to cancel,” says Willis. “This is one of the most technically complex shows I’ve ever done. It travels with nine semis full of sets and costumes, close to 500 costumes in all.”

Willis spent some formative years in the Chicago area, when his dad was basketball coach at Lincoln-Way high School in New Lenox and his parents took him downtown to see shows like “Dr. Dolittle,” “Oliver” and “Mary Poppins.” “Some of the things that drew me into musical theater happened as a result of being so close to Chicago,” he said by telephone from a Pittsburgh laundromat, where he was drying out socks. His family’s now in Alabama, where he was about to drive for some time off before “Priscilla” starts up in the Windy City: “I didn’t want to show up at Mom’s with a load of laundry.”

Willis got his call to do the role of Bernadette last November in Nashville, where he was playing, of all things, Santa Claus in a touring version of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. He had auditioned for Bernadette a few years before, when “Priscilla” was transferring from London to Broadway. But after several callbacks, the producers decided after all to import Tony Sheldon, who had been playing the role since 2006, from its beginnings in Australia. Willis is one of the first Bernadettes of the post-Sheldon era.

“I love that I am the right age to play her,” says Willis. “I’m quite often asked to die my hair, but I don’t need to this time. My best friend came to see me in Philly last week — her mother had been a Rockette and she was also a Rockette, and we had met at Radio City Music Hall in 1982 and then did ’42nd Street’ on tour together. She came backstage gushing over the show and said, ‘Omigosh, Scott, you are going to be working until you are 90!'”

Although the show involves men who cross-dress and lip-sync to pop tunes, the presentation is clever, campy and quite gentle with its message, says Willis: “It does make its points, but as I often tell groups, the reason it resonates with so many people is that almost everybody has experienced some kind of prejudice in life and has wanted to find the freedom within themselves to be who they felt they are, but can’t be, whether it’s a relationship they don’t know how to get out of, or something else.

“And we can tell that people love it. Many times on other tours we’ve seen people on the street who recognize us, and we can tell they’re hesistant; they don’t want to interrupt. But with this show, they yell and cheer from their cars across the street. And we feel it from the beginning in the theater, too. The energy immediately happens, and it surprises people, and it keeps building until the finale is really like a rock concert. It’s such a pleasure to do the show.”

The high heels took a bit of getting used to, says Willis, although he claims to have gotten the knack quickly: “It’s sort of like snow skiing. The body knows what it has to do naturally not to fall over.”

Willis finds himself in something of an adviser role now that he has decades of touring behind him: “As the young get older, we have to take responsibility for the kind of nurturing that once happened for us on the road. It’s important. And you know these kids are amazing. People always talk about the three of us in the lead roles, but you wouldn’t believe what they have to do.

“In the old days, musical shows would have singers in the pit. The dancers onstage were just dancing. But these kids do it all. They are actually singing full out from the backstage while taking off wigs and such, because there are so many costume changes. And I am walking by them in the wings, hearing these terrific, terrific voices. It’s true that you really have to be an acting-dancing-singing triple threat in the business now.”

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Captions and credits: Home page and top: Scott Willis as Bernadette. Scott Willis out of costume. Wade McCollum as Mitzi, Scott Willis as Bernadette and Bryan West as Felicia in the number “I Love the Nightlife.” Wade McCollum, Bryan West as Felicia and Scott Willis as Bernadette sing “Color My World.”  Broadway production video showing Priscilla the bus and many of the costumes. Below: Scott Willis, as Bernadette, with the company. (Production photos by Joan Marcus.) 


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