Since Scott Willis landed the role of “Bernadette” in the musical adaptation of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” he has a newfound appreciation for the women in his life – particularly his mother. “I now know why we were always late for everything,” said Willis by telephone from his room in Chicago where the show had a two-week run. “Why we walked into church late every Sunday. There is always one more thing you want to do, always one more thing you need to touch up, always something you have to add (to your ensemble) as a woman.” And don’t even get him started on pantyhose. “That is harder than going to the gym for me,” he adds.
Willis will slip into the role of Bernadette, an aging transsexual performer, when “Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical” rides into the Straz Center Tuesday. Written by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, the musical is based on the 1994 cult film of the same name and follows three drag queens as they go on an adventure across Australia in a rundown bus named “Priscilla” searching for love and friendship and finding so much more. Alongside Willis’s Bernadette, it stars Wade McCollum at “Tick/Mitzi and Bryan West as “Adam/Felicia as the drag queens. The musical, which won a 2011 Tony Award for Best Costume Design, features more than 500 dazzling costumes including a hot-pink-and-orange sheath made entirely of flip-flops, fluorescent green cupcakes that twirl, bedazzled disco-era outfits and over-the-top topiary headdresses.
The show is fueled by some 20 ebullient dance floor favorites including “It's Raining Men,” “I Will Survive,” and “Material Girl.” It’s the most successful Australian musical of all-time. “The energy starts at the beginning and builds and builds and ends like rock concert,” Willis said of the stage spectacle. “There’s such an exchange of energy in the room. This is a piece of theater that brings the audience out of themselves and brings us so much joy as a performer.” Willis first auditioned for the role of Bernadette a few years ago, when the production was transferring from London to Broadway, but the role went to Tony Sheldon, who had been playing Bernadette since 2006 from its beginnings in Australia. Unfazed, he auditioned a second time and landed the role of Bernadette last November, while playing Santa Claus in a touring version of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, a role he’s held for 14 years. “I saw (the movie) many years ago and loved it,” said Willis. “I was hesitant going (on the auditions) because I had never done drag before and I knew I would be going up against professional drag performers.” “Bernadette is from a different time,” said Willis of his character, who finds romance in the desert with an amiable mechanic named Bob, played by Joe Hart.” “She is very glamorous. If everyone at a party is singing disco songs, she would sing some classic songs from Petula Clark or something no one else was singing.” To prepare for the character, Willis wrote an arrangement for the song “Take Your Mink,” from “Guys and Dolls,” created a fake drag resume and rented a hotel across the street from the audition, to keep it a secret from his neighbors. Willis said it was while preparing for the role that he realized his angst didn’t stem from the audition, but his fear of wearing a dress. “I thought if I left my (apartment) building in drag, it would forever change the relationship with the people who knew me as Kris Kringle” said Willis. “I had to be in drag because that’s what I was afraid of. And if you’re afraid of something, you have to face your fears no matter what it is.” Willis said he spends about an hour getting his makeup done to become Bernadette. He has roughly 15 costume changes in the show, each more outrageous than the last. “Bernadette is from a more glamorous time,” he said of his character. “She’s really a star from another time. Every time she puts on a dress she’s a little larger than life.” While Priscilla has men who cross-dress and lip-sync, awe-inspiring costumes, friendship and entertaining comedy, its message goes much deeper. “The story of Priscilla is everybody’s story,” Willis added. “If you’ve ever been part of a minority, put down for who you are or who you’re trying to be, or any hurtful thing that has happened in your life. It’s not about being gay; it’s about whatever special thing you want to be. (Priscilla) gives people permission. If you fail miserably, the world will go on and you will get over it. Just don’t be afraid to try.”