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Priscilla Queen of the Desert

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Over the past few seasons, Celebration Theatre has perfected a cottage industry of taking large, splashy Broadway musicals with LGBT content and smartly reimagining them for their very tight playing space. Typically one approaches the show wondering if they’ll be able to erase the original production from your mind. I confess that I approached the theatre for the opening of Priscilla Queen of the Desert hoping they could erase my memories of the Broadway show.

My New York experience of Priscilla was of a show that was all flash and no heart. The numbers felt relentless, the dialog cartoonish, and the performances, with the exception of Tony Sheldon’s wonderfully human Bernadette, were pitched more for Yankee Stadium than the Palace Theatre.

The musical is based on the quirky Australian film of the mid-90’s The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The film was part of a group of Australian films that included Muriel’s Wedding, and the less successful Welcome to Whoop Whoop, which mixed broad comedy, contemporary issues, and retro music for a diverting entertainment with a little substance beneath the laughs.

Priscilla kicks into gear when Sydney drag performer, Tick (Mario Burrell), gets an emergency call from his estranged wife, Marion (GinaTorrecilla), requesting that he help her out by replacing a canceled floor show in her casino. She’d also like him to meet their son, Benji (Jack or Nick Brody).

Needing more than a solo show, Tick drags along veteran performer and recent widow, Bernadette (Tad Coughenour), along with a talented, but testy newcomer, Adam (Lyle Colby Mackston). The bickering trio climb on board a bus they dub Priscilla and drive fearlessly into the Australian outback. Along the way, they’ll meet warm-hearted Bob (George Chavez) and his wife, Cynthia (Andrea Somera), a frustrated performer who understands that in order to capture an audience, you gotta have a gimmick.

On their road trip, they’ll encounter rednecks and win them over. They’ll wear spectacularly strange outfits. And, joined by a trio of singing divas and a quartet of male chorus boys, they will lip-sync a Jerome Kern standard and a Verdi aria, go to town on a couple of 60’s classics, and ignite the stage with a host of disco-era and 80’s hits.

Director Jessica Hanna fills the stage nicely and keeps the slight plot moving forward briskly and with clarity. Roman Pantoja’s energetically campy choreography perfectly fits the mood of the mostly pulsing score, but he also impresses with some elegant touches in “A Fine Romance.” Musical Director Jennifer Lin and her band may be hanging from the rafters, but their high-wattage playing is a constant source of sonic delight. Scenic Designer Pete Hickok finds ingenious solutions to the script’s many obstacles, and Allison Dillard’s colorful costumes are appropriately jaw-dropping, without overwhelming the characters. Special mention should be made of Tuffet Schmelzle’s coaching of an Australian dialect.

Burrell makes Tick’s emotional journey the foundation of his portrayal, which pays off in the reunion with his son. Coughenour’s Bernadette is an elegant, if world-weary, survivor who has seen it all but rediscovers hope on the journey. Mackston’s strong-voiced Adam is fierce, talented, and seemingly unflappable until an incident reveals his tough façade to be a coping mechanism against the world’s cruelty.

Like the film, the musical does touch on homophobia, but it doesn’t linger. The purpose of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, is to entertain and empower. Twin goals this colorful are hard to resist. The Celebration Theatre production ably manages.

Celebration Thratre     February 16 – April 15, 2018




Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.