A&E: PRISCILLA

Slow Burn Theatre Co.’s Rick Peña and Patrick Fitzwater model some of the costumes that just arrived for their upcoming production of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Credit: Facebook, courtesy Rick Peña.

“Christmas” came a little early for Rick Peña. Literally. Like an eager child rushing to the tree to unwrap presents, Slow Burn Theatre Co.’s award-winning costume designer found himself in the Broward Center’s Abdo New River Room three weeks ago, opening more than 65 boxes of costumes for the upcoming production.

But this wasn’t just any production and inside there weren’t just any “costumes.” The show is “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” a disco-inspired romp about three drag queens driving across Australia in a beat-up pink bus, and the Tony Award-winning costumes are iconic examples of campy drag at its most extreme. Slow Burn won the rights to the regional premiere in Fort Lauderdale, June 13 – 30.

“It took days to go through all the boxes and inventory and inspect all the costumes,” recalled Peña, who shared the adventure with artistic director Patrick Fitzwater in real time on social media. “It’s a massive show, all around.”

The creative duo’s friends and followers got sneak peaks at the giant flowered wigs, ostrich headpieces and shimmery bell bottoms that first won rave reviews in the 1994 indie film and later on Broadway in a clever 2011 adaptation.

“We had so much to do,” he said of the more than 600 pieces. “And it was still a challenge to figure out which rack [of costumes] would work best for all the ensemble actors.”

But, the hardest job was still yet to come. Peña, a Florida International University theater grad, first fell in love with costume design as a boy in Miami and was taught to sew by his grandmother. He had to begin the equally massive task of altering the costumes to fit the 25 cast members.

“I prefer designing and constructing the costumes,” he explained. “I have more control that way. Let’s just say it’s much easier to take in a costume than to find room to let it out.”

It’s not unusual for Peña to both design and sew hundreds of costumes for Slow Burn’s big budget musicals. This season’s fun spring production of “Legally Blonde” had a cast of 25 and each character had an average of eight costume changes.

“You do the math,” he quipped.

Once the show finally makes it to the stage, Peña said the audience never notices the most critical aspect of the production — the quick costume changes backstage. The designer and three other dressers are hustling backstage to help actors into and out of their wigs, frocks and platform heels. 

“There is just as much — maybe a bigger show — happening back stage as on stage,” he said, also noting that star Michael Ursua even undergoes a seemingly miraculous onstage transformation. “But, you will not see me.”

One question audiences always ponder is how the drag queens can get into and out of their makeup so quickly. 

That’s simple, Peña revealed. The actors wear special masks with the makeup painted on and, from the house, itappears as convincing as if it were applied by hand. There are more than 70 makeup masks and each is coordinated to specific costumes, adding yet another twist to the tricky quick-change scenario.

“There’s a lot of excitement,” Peña said as he departed for the first design run at the Broward Center, the first time actors will rehearse the show in the costumes. “I think the cast is the most excited.”

Slow Burn Theatre Co. presents the regional premiere of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” June 13 – 30, in the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets start at $47 at BrowardCenter.org.