03.17.11

Broadway's New Queen

Nick Adams co-stars in Priscilla Queen of the Desert as the Madonna-obsessed Felicia. He tells Itay Hod about his nightly drag transformation and his tabloid feud with Mario Lopez.

There's an exact moment every night when Nick Adams stops being Nick and becomes Felicia. Right before the curtains go up, he sneaks one last look in his vanity mirror. Wearing a big blond wig, a tight corset, and enough makeup to make the late Tammy Faye Bakker look like an amateur, he can almost feel it. That's when he does that “thing.” He winks at himself through thick prosthetic lashes and says, “Have a good show, bitch!”

Adams is—almost literally—on the ride of his life, playing one of the leads in the new Broadway musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert, about a trio of feisty drag queens driving through the Australian outback searching for love and friendship. The show, which officially opens March 20, is based on the 1994 cult film classic, one of the first gay movies to find mainstream success.

This is a make-or-break moment for Adams. Unlike the other two leads on the show, Will Swenson and Tony Sheldon, he's never had his name on the marquee before. And he knows there'll be more than a few people wondering how a 27-year-old newbie managed to snag such a coveted part.

“I think opportunities come along when you're ready for them,” he said over a bowl of minestrone at Angus McIndoe, a famous Theater District restaurant. “I don't think I was ready for it until now.”

He's not due in the makeup chair for another hour, where he'll morph into Madonna circa her Material Girl phase. But for now, he's sporting a plain dark T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and a Mets baseball cap. No sequins in sight. If he is nervous at all, it doesn't show. He seems comfortable in the spotlight, even when dangling 20 feet above ground in a bright pink dress and six-inch stilettos. Still, there are moments when Adams can't believe his own luck. “It's like holy fucking shit,” he says. “It's here, you're doing it”.

Adams: “My professional life has never been better, but my personal life sucks!”

Adams plays the youngest of the three drag queens, the flamboyant, albeit somewhat irritating Felicia Jollygoodfellow. Storming the stage in Act One, he bursts into a long medley of Madonna's greatest hits, including “Material Girl,” “Like a Virgin,” and “Like a Prayer.” This is one of the changes made to the American production (the U.K. version was all Kylie Minogue). Either way, those are some pretty big shoes to fill. And not just in a metaphorical sense. In one of the more unusual moments in the show, Adams lip-syncs an aria from La Traviata while riding a sparking giant-size stiletto. But somehow he manages to pull it off.

Richard Ouzounian, critic for the Toronto Star, called Adams' smile "dazzling” and his performance “impressive."

And Michael Musto of The Village Voice said his life was about to change, big time—particularly with the Tony Awards coming up. "He's definitely in running for the featured actor category,” said Musto. “Until now he's played small roles, but this could catapult him into another level."

Adams’ road to Broadway is as outrageous and colorful as the costumes he wears on stage. Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, he earned a degree in fine arts from the renowned Boston Conservatory of Music. After graduation, he moved to New York and quickly started booking small parts in musicals like Chicago and The Pirate Queen. But it wasn't until A Chorus Line that Adams became a singular sensation—though not because of his acting chops.

He was playing the role of Larry, the dance captain, and for the first two years, things were going well. Every night, the ridiculously fit Adams walked on stage wearing a tiny tank top and some very tight tights. But when the producers of the flailing musical brought in actor Mario Lopez to play the lead in a last-ditch effort to sell more tickets, everything changed.

Soon after Lopez was hired, Adams was handed a baggy hoodie to wear over his tank top. He was also told his placement on stage would “change” from front and center to the back row, which in the theater world is right next to Siberia.

“I was like, is this a joke?” said Adams. “The whole cast looked at me like, what the hell is going on?”

He found out later the request came from Lopez’s people. It seems Adams' bulging biceps were muscling attention away from the star.

The whole thing would have gone unnoticed if it weren't for the fact that a New York Post reporter got wind of it and ran an article about Broadway's “battle of the biceps.” Tabloids and bloggers had a field day, calling Lopez “ Mo-Pez,” and Adams became an overnight mini-celebrity. “I went from being known within the theater community to a level we don't ever experience when we start off on Broadway.”

Adams was inundated with calls from major networks and casting directors. His website got 100,000 hits within a day. And an underwear company called 2(x)ist, which was planning a campaign with Lopez in mind, offered it to Adams instead after they read the story in the paper. (The campaign was shot, but never ran.)

“It did nothing but help me in the end,” said Adams.

Even though much has been made of the so-called feud, Adams and Lopez are close friends. Adams even introduced Lopez to his girlfriend and mother of his child, Courtney Mazza.

In his first public comment since the incident, Lopez told The Daily Beast he never asked for any changes. “It was so not true,” he said. “As you can see, we get along great, we even work out together. That was my first foray into that world and I would never go around saying anything and demanding anything.”

Lopez says he has no idea who made the request, but suspects it came from an overly eager producer. When asked whether he was bothered by all the bad press, he said no. “I thought it was funny. We [Nick and I] both got a big kick out of it.”

Perhaps the only negative thing to come out of that story is the perception that Adams owes his career to Lopez. “I think after that a lot of people only looked at me as being a body and not an actor,” he said. “I've been doing this my whole life.”

But all that's in the past. What's occupying his time now are things like how to walk on high heels, and the best way to remove glitter. As it turns out, playing a drag queen has its not-so-fabulous moments (a lesson he learned last year when he played one of the “Cagelles” in La Cage Aux Folles).

To prepare for the role, he enlisted the help of Bianca Del Rio, a popular New York City drag performer. He followed her to shows, all the while studying the movement of her hands, the way she walked, even the vibration of her Adam's apple. “It's fun because you really feel like you're not yourself,” he said. “It allows you to be something completely different.”

When asked if life could possible get any sweeter, he said he would like to have someone to share it with. Adams, who is gay, recently broke up with his boyfriend. “My professional life has never been better, but my personal life sucks!”

Still, one can’t help but think that life won’t be too much of a drag for Nick Adams for very long.

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Itay Hod is a broadcast journalist with CBS where he reports on a range of topics from breaking news and politics to lifestyle and culture.