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November 23, 2017

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Priscilla’ and 500 drag queen costumes bus across the desert for nine-week run at the Venetian


Joan Marcus

The musical “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical

The musical Launch slideshow »

The journey on Interstate 15 across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for the "Priscilla" musical touring company is as incredible an undertaking as the Australian outback drag-queen scripted adventure itself.

The big, glitzy, colorful theatrical production complete with an on-stage cutaway bus takes nine trucks to transport — two of which are just for the wardrobe costumes and hair pieces! Cast and crew arrived Monday, and Tuesday morning, “Priscilla School” opened to teach hired Las Vegas locals how best to help the cast fast-change in and out of the myriad of outrageous outfits.

"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — The Musical" opens for a one-night preview Tuesday night, and the full run premieres on Thursday at the Venetian. It’s a highly faithful re-creation of the incredible 1994 box-office movie success story of three drag queens onboard a battered bus presenting a lip-syncing burlesque show in the rough and rugged outback of wild Australia.

It is outrageously funny and comes complete with sparkling sequins, crazy high heels and fabulous feather boas. The show is a nonstop disco musical with a heart that yearns for tolerance and understanding. "Priscilla" won raves from hard-boiled critics during its Broadway run and has received standing ovations and lengthy applause on its first national tour across the United States. It will play the former Phantom of the Opera Theater at the Venetian through Aug. 31.

'Priscilla' Broadway Review

Today is Part 1 of our "Priscilla" coverage with my interview with wardrobe supervisor Gillian Austin. On Thursday, we’ll feature my interview with former Las Vegas resident Bryan West, who plays one of the three main characters, Adam/Felicia. The other two actors are Scott Willis, who plays transgender drag queen Bernadette, and Wade McCollum, who plays Tick/Mitzi on the surprise search for his son from a brief straight marriage.

Gillian is responsible for dressing the men in 8-foot-tall cupcake costumes after working more normal Broadway shows "Cats," "Catch Me if You Can" and "Hairspray!" Here’s our exclusive conversation:

Robin Leach: Is this the largest show move of any Broadway production?

Gillian Austin: Packing-wise, I have to say it’s in the top five. I think the only competition would be "Lion King" or maybe "42nd Street" with a 50-person cast. Our costumes alone take up a truck and a half. Our tour is nine trucks, which doesn’t sound like that much when you put it up there next to "Wicked," which has 20 trucks, but we are a pretty big show, and add in the bus, which takes so much time installing. It’s a lot of work to both put in and take down our show. There’s a sense of relief that once we’ve unpacked from Los Angeles and loaded into the Venetian we get to stay put for a little while. I think all of us have been looking forward to the Vegas residency since the tour started.

RL: The statistics for wardrobe and wigs are quite incredible on their own, right?

GA: Costume-wise, we have about 500 quick changes that happen during the show. We have over 1,000 costume pieces when you include the shoes, undergarments, specialty undergarments for the boys like corsets; all the men wear pantyhose, so we have to have tights for them, gloves, jewelry. There are over 1,000 pieces easy — some are big, too, so that makes it much easier to keep our eyes on. Add in all the wigs and you know we’ve got our hands full.

RL: How do you keep track of it all without losing anything, or have you in fact lost something?

GA: We haven’t lost anything yet, but basically everything has a home and nothing ever leaves the stage. So that way it’s really hard for things to get lost, specifically shoes. People wear slippers back and forth so the shoes always stay in the stage area. Very very few costumes go to dressing rooms for them to change in to; every other change happens on the stage. We have 15 people basically monitoring everything to make sure things don’t run off. It isn’t really too easy to lose an 8-foot cupcake. We’re just very specific in making a home for everything.

RL: One of the quickest changes of costumes that you have to supervise being the wardrobe supervisor, takes place in less than 15 seconds. Have you come close to not making it?

GA: Oh yeah, that’s the one where it actually happens on stage at the end of Act 1, where Bernadette starts singing “I Will Survive.” A little black mini-proscenium stage comes out with five people hiding behind it: two carpenters, one of the actors, one of my assistants and me with the shoes and the hats. We’ve choreographed it just like a dance routine. At the beginning of the tour, we couldn’t make it at all, then down to five seconds late, then he would just barely come out; finally we just got better and better and used to each other. It is weird; if you’ve ever tired to put someone’s foot into a really big shoe, it’s a weird kind of finesse that took a lot of work. First error making it like 10 percent percent of the time, then 40 percent of the time, then 50 percent, and now we make it almost every time. Its exactly 15 seconds for the head-to-toe change!

He comes off through those black curtains, takes off his skirt and little bolero, the carpenter hands him his hat, we’re getting him into those Gumby pants, then my assistant is on one foot, I’m on the other; we both lift the pants — she zips, I buckle. That’s the routine!

There’s so many quick changes during this show; everything is quick-rigged. We have magnets holding things together; everything is velcroed up the wazoo to make the show easier. Whenever we go to a new city, I tell the dressing team it's a pain in the ass to dress; it’s not an easy show where you just do a few zippers. This is a real pain, but at the end of it, you have dressed an 8-foot-tall cupcake, and that’s satisfying knowing they will tell their grandkids about it someday.

RL: So I take it that you actually hire dressers in each city you go to?

GA: Yes, in every city we take on 12 people. There’s three people who travel with the show, and every city we hire 12 brand new people who know nothing about the show. We have a four-hour "Priscilla School" where we show them how to put someone into a cupcake, how to put someone into a Gumby, turn them into a paintbrush. We have to train people because (we work) with the most complicated costumes known to man. The finale is so complicated, so we have to train the 12 Vegas people we’ve hired at "Priscilla School" to show them where everything is and that first preview night guide them during the show.

“Most of the time, the hiring is a crapshoot. We meet them Tuesday at 8 a.m. to judge their charactyer. Then we work with them for four hours to get to know them, talk to them and figure out which cast people they will be assigned to. If they have more dressing experience, we give them to the leads — and only then do we start school!

RL: Where do you find the 12 people in Las Vegas to perform this juggling act with costumes without a week of planning and rehearsals?

GA: A stage crew company and the Venetian is hiring dressers. It’s a job, but you have shows like Cirque and "Jubilee," so we won’t be short of people. Much easier in Vegas than Minneapolis was, or going from city to city finding people to squeeze grown men into women's clothes.

It is crazy. We have had some people say, “I can’t do this,” and back out. That kind of stuff has happened along the road, but for the most part, we’ve had really good people. We try to keep it really fun backstage so they stay and they get better, but the first few nights are always really rough and stuff goes missing because it’s in the wrong spot or they forget changes or how to do things. It’s always rough the first few nights, but by the weekend we’re firing on all fours.

I took classes in millinery at the London School of Fashion, so if I don’t know how to make an 8-foot-tall cupcake hat, I know how to fix them. This is the wildest wardrobe I’ve ever seen in any musical — the craziest, out-of-this-world costumes. They had a great time designing these things and won many awards around the world for them.

What’s great about the show is that it just keeps coming and coming and coming. You think you’ve seen everything that the show has to offer and then there’s another scene with dancing paint brushes, and then you think it’s finally over and there can’t be anything else to top that, and then comes another scene with men in more drag show girl costumes. It just keeps going all the time — relentless!

RL: Is everybody onstage and behind the curtains having a blast as much as the audience thinks they are?

GA: Oh, yes! It’s fun. It’s pretty comical because all of our boys wear heels during the show, not for the entire thing but for several songs. Men in heels is just a treat. Especially when they were first getting used to them, we had a lot of falls. We still have falls and trips and stuff like that. The guys overestimate what they can do in heels. It’s really fun, and just the fact that they’re wearing these silly costumes, you really embrace it.

On Thursday, my interview is with lead actor Bryan West, who lived here as a youngster growing up. His grandfather was a Las Vegas Fire Department chief for two decades and he still has many family members living here.

"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — The Musical" had its world premiere in Sydney in 2006, adapted from the 1994 Academy Award-winning film. It opened on Broadway in 2011 and won three Drama Desk, Drama League and Critics Circle Best Musical awards and a Tony Award for Best Costume Design.

Ticket prices at the Venetian start at $59, and the show runs through Aug. 31.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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