Priscilla Queen of the Desert: Theater Review
5:56 PM 3/20/2011 by David Rooney
The Bottom Line
Big, brassy, unapologetically profane and over the top — it’s no wonder Bette Midler signed on as a producer.
Palace Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon, Nick Adams, C. David Johnson
What “Mamma Mia!” did for Abba, director Simon Phillips’ stage adaptation of the 1994 Australian road movie does for a foot-tapping mega-mix that lifts primarily from ’70s disco and ’80s pop.
NEW YORK — It takes the chutzpah and shameless theatricality of an army of drag queens to shove a cake onstage simply as a set-up for “MacArthur Park.” At that point, resistance to the brash charms of Priscilla Queen of the Desert becomes futile.
What Mamma Mia! did for Abba, this stage adaptation of the 1994 Australian road movie does for a foot-tapping mega-mix that lifts primarily from ’70s disco and ’80s pop, but dips with equal gusto into Elvis, Petula Clark, Jerome Kern and Verdi.
Jukebox musicals are all about shoehorning hits into a jerry-built plot by whatever means necessary. But in “MacArthur Park,” Priscilla sets a new benchmark, appropriating some of the loopiest lyrics in 20th century pop. Beginning in the original Richard Harris vein as a poignant reflection on love and glory, won and lost, the song then switches to Donna Summer mode, yielding a delirious production number with cupcakes twirling in the rain.
That anything-goes sensibility runs riot in Priscilla, which stands guilty on charges of crassness, clunky storytelling and undue slavishness to its source material. Subtlety has no home here. What the show does deliver, however, is joyous crowd-pleasing entertainment, raunchy humor, eye-popping visuals and unexpected heart.
Instigator of the story’s journey from Sydney to remote Alice Springs is Tick (Will Swenson), a drag performer who wed his choreographer, Marion (Jessica Phillips), during a momentary lapse of heterosexuality, and fathered a son, Benji (Luke Mannikus and Ashton Woerz alternate in the role).
Six-year-old Benji wants to meet Dad, and the casino Marion runs needs a new floorshow, so Tick recruits freshly widowed transsexual Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and muscle-bound Madonna fan Adam (Nick Adams) to round out the act. The vehicle for their Outback odyssey is a beat-up bus christened Priscilla.
Developed by the show’s director Simon Phillips and adapted from his screenplay by the film’s writer-director Stephan Elliott with Allan Scott, Priscilla gets off to an uncertain start.
The writers and director seem less interested in exposition or character establishment than in stringing together outrageous showstoppers, often to exhausting effect. Act one alone has eight campy production numbers, starting with “It’s Raining Men,” in which three divas (Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, Ashley Spencer) descend from the flies to shadow the protagonists on and off throughout the show.
There’s A LOT going on. While much of it is gaudy, fabulous and funny, it’s not until act two that the aggressively high-energy musical calms down enough to allow emotional investment in its characters.
This comes largely via the anchoring presence of Sheldon’s divine Bernadette. She’s soft and vulnerable one minute, maternal the next, yet always ready to dispense an acerbic put-down. Elegant and dignified, the Australian actor could pass for Cate Blanchett’s mother.
Sheldon has been with the show since its earliest Sydney incarnation in 2006, which accounts for the deeply etched back-story he brings to the role. A former old-school drag headliner, Bernadette sells “allure and illusion,” the antithesis of in-your-face Felicia, Adam’s drag alter ego. Bernadette has absorbed her share of knocks and had scant luck in love, which makes the tender blossoming of romance with gentlemanly mechanic Bob (C. David Johnson) all the more touching.
Adams has the tough task of humanizing a character who speaks exclusively in bitchy quips and lewd innuendo, but he gets there by working his prodigiously toned butt off. Central as it is to the story, Tick’s arc lacks definition. Swenson struggles to bring much beyond basic warmth to the “straight-man” role of buffer between his polar-opposite companions.
Elliott and Scott’s book improves on the movie in its big-hearted endorsement of unorthodox families forged from their shared outsider experience. This theme emerges satisfyingly in the closing stretch, despite a clumsy transition to Felicia’s triumphant realization of a lifelong dream at Ayers Rock.
Phillips and choreographer Ross Coleman(who died in 2009 and whose work is being supervised on Broadway by Jerry Mitchell) subscribe to the more-is-more school of staging, which carries over into the design. Brian Thomson’s bus is no less a star than the principals, particularly after its gun-metal gray exterior gets a neon-pink makeover to match the trailer-park chic interior.
Above all, hats off — or peacock-plumed headdresses — to the wildly inventive costumes of Oscar-winning team Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, reprising their film duties. And to the dressers on what must be a labor-intensive nightmare backstage. The finale medley unleashes an orgy of iconic Australiana, which seems only fitting for a show not the least bit shy about its taste for flaming excess.
Venue: Palace Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon, Nick Adams, C. David Johnson, James Brown III, Nathan Lee Graham, J. Elaine Marcos, Mike McGowan, Jessica Phillips, Steve Schepis, Keala Settle, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, Ashley Spencer, Luke Mannikus, Ashton Woerz
Book: Stephan Elliott, Allan Scott, based on the Latent Image/Specific Films movie, released by MGM
Director: Simon Phillips
Production designer: Brian Thomson
Costume designers: Tim Chappel, Lizzy Gardiner
Lighting designer: Nick Schlieper
Sound designers: Jonathan Deans, Peter Fitzgerald
Production supervisor: Jerry Mitchell
Choreographer: Ross Coleman
Music supervision/arrangements: Stephen “Spud” Murphy
Orchestrations: Stephen “Spud” Murphy, Charlie Hull
Music director: Jeffrey Klitz
Presented by Bette Midler, James L. Nederlander, Garry McQuinn, Liz Koops, Michael Hamlyn, Allan Scott, Roy Furman/Richard Willis, Terry Allen Kramer, Terri and Timothy Childs, Ken Greiner, Ruth Hendel, Chugg Entertainment, Michael Buckley, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, Bruce Davey, Thierry Suc/TS3, Bartner/Jenkins, Broadway Across America/H. Koenigsberg, M. Lerner/D.Bisno/K. Seidel/R. Gold, Paul Boskind and Martian Entertainment/Spirtus-Mauro Productions/MAS Music Arts & Show, David Mirvish, in association with MGM On Stage, Darcie Denkert and Dean Stolber
Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical
Reviewed By: David Finkle Â· Mar 21, 2011 Â· New York
Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical, now at Broadway’s Palace Theatre under Simon Phillips’ direction, comes at its audience with more theatrical guns blazing than almost any show in recent memory. Indeed, Priscilla — which premiered in Australia five years ago and arrives via stints in London and Toronto — often resembles a Las Vegas revue more than a traditional Broadway show at its chorus-boy’s heart.
In this give-’em-the-old-razzle-dazzle musical, three minutes rarely go by without featuring a number built around a hit pop tune, including The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men,” Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” and Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife.” Almost every ditty is choreographed within an inch of its you-go-girl life (the dances were created by the late Ross Coleman and are now supevrised by Jerry Mitchell); splashed with Nick Schlieper’s lighting; and amplified for ear-splitting effect by Jonathan Dean and Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design.
Above all, the show is extravagantly costumed by Oscar winners Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (including six out-sized, cupcake-like ensembles that glide through during the show’s second-act “MacArthur Park” extravaganza.)
However, there is also a story on stage, and librettists Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott deserve points for keeping intact the narrative bones from the 1994 film (entitled The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), which provides the show’s source material. Drag performer Tick, also known as Mitzi (Will Swenson), enlists older transsexual pal Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and spunky young drag queen Felicia, also known as Adam (Nick Adams) to accompany him on a trip from Sydney to Alice Springs in a tarted-out van named Priscilla.
The reason for the journey, which takes the cross-dressing buddies through such bona-fide Aussie towns called Bumbaldry, Cockburn, and Top Ryde, is that Tick has been asked by his remarkably understanding, casino-owning wife Marion (Jessica Phillips) to finally meet his six-year-old son, Benji (Nick Mannikus at some performances, Ashton Woerz at others), whom he left behind to pursue his ultra-gay life in the big city.
Not surprisingly, during the weeks-long journey, the three travelers deal with intercine squabbles, run into problems with unsympathetic outbackers, and meet a wide variety of local characters, including a tough-talking bar owner (Keala Settle), an aboriginal tourist exploiter (James Brown III), oh-so-handy mechanic Bob (C. David Johnson), who takes a shine to lovelorn, middle-aged Bernadette, and Bob’s crazed soon-to-be ex-wife Cynthia (J. Elaine Marcos), whose memorable “Pop Muzik” turn features ping-pong balls fired from between her supple legs.
The principal cast, led by the indefatigable Sheldon, Adams, and Swenson, give the routines their all, and then some. Meanwhile, literally hanging about the proceedings are the Divas (Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, and Ashley Spencer), who provide much of the show’s vocal power. As for the ensemble, as active as they are while facing the audience, they must expend at least as much energy during the backstage costume changes.
While the show will likely prove to be a crowd-pleaser, it can be difficult to tell whether all of those offering a standing ovation at the curtain call actually enjoyed what they saw — or are simply surrendering out of sheer exhaustion.
Review Roundup: PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT on Broadway
Back to the Article
Following smash hit productions in Australia, London and Toronto, PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT THE MUSICAL began previews on Broadway on February 28 and opened on March 20th. PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT THE MUSICAL stars Tony AwardÂ® nominee Will Swenson, Olivier Award nominee Tony Sheldon and Nick Adams as the trio of friends on a heart-warming, uplifting road trip of a lifetime who hop aboard a battered old bus searching for love and friendship in the middle of the Australian outback and end up finding more than they could ever have dreamed.
Were the reviews all that the show dreamed of as well? Let’s find out!
Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: The most rewarding role belongs to Mr. Sheldon, who brings an authentic note of dignifiEd Grace to his performance as Bernadette. His mothering of both the troubled Tick and the potentially self-destructive Felicia feels honest, and Mr. Sheldon has a way of inflecting the book’s litter of catty zingers with refined nuances that make them feel smarter and fresher than they probably are. But any flickers of warmth and true human feeling in “Priscilla” are either obscured by another onslaught of gyrating dancers or squashed flat by a giant platform heel. After a while even the festive parade of outlandish costumes, among the show’s more reliably entertaining diversions, begin to feel stale and overworked. At the extended curtain call – aptly set to the catchy ’90s dance floor anthem entitled “Finally” – you are likely to feel slightly dazed and stultified, as if you’d been conked on the head with a disco ball.
David Rooney, Reuters/Hollywood Reporter: What “Mamma Mia!” did for Abba, director Simon Phillips’ stage adaptation of the 1994 Australian road movie does for a foot-tapping mega-mix that lifts primarily from ’70s disco and ’80s pop. There’s A LOT going on. While much of it is gaudy, fabulous and funny, it’s not until act two that the aggressively high-energy musical calms down enough to allow emotional investment in its characters. This comes largely via the anchoring presence of Sheldon’s divine Bernadette. She’s soft and vulnerable one minute, maternal the next, yet always ready to dispense an acerbic put-down. Elegant and dignified, the Australian actor could pass for Cate Blanchett’s mother. Sheldon has been with the show since its earliest Sydney incarnation in 2006, which accounts for the deeply etched back-story he brings to the role.
Steven Suskin, Variety: Priscilla, a tricked-up tour bus with a shoe on the roof, rolls onto the stage of the Palace Theater to roars from the audience, and proceeds to turn, twist and light up pink and purple. And then does it again (and again and again). So goes the brashly good-natured Aussie musical to which the bus lends its name, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” which, born from Stephan Elliott’s 1994 film, seems destined to follow the path of “Mamma Mia!” Inartful here, crass there, this rollicking crowdpleaser in sequins nonetheless packs enough heart to leave the masses enthralled.
Jeremy Gerard, Bloomberg News: So what if Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott’s crude book, based on Elliott’s film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” panders to a crowd that doesn’t need winning over? The first act works too hard and Will Swenson’s voice seems to be on the verge of going on strike. Nevertheless, he’s pretty winning as Tick; so is Nick Adams as Felicia. A cut above, for bringing tremendous heart to a predictable role, is Tony Sheldon as the touching Bernadette. Hats off too to C. David Johnson as lovable Bob, the man of Bernadette’s dreams. Bring your dancing shoes.
Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: The nylon-thin plot is mostly an excuse to set up the classic tunes on the soundtrack. As fans of Glee know by now, there’s a certain pleasure in the truly unlikely segue. It’s natural for Tick to begin ‘Say a Little Prayer’ seated at the mirror: ‘The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup…’ But you can imagine the narrative lengths to which the creators must go to introduce Jimmy Webb’s ‘MacArthur Park,’ which memorably begins: ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain.’ Needless to say, the show is campier than a tentful of Boy Scouts (working on their choreography merit badge). And there’s a dance-party atmosphere that helps compensate for the show’s plot implausibilities and clunkier moments. Among the three leads, Adams seems the most solid and comfortably over the top as a bratty young provocateur. Sheldon is not the strongest singer, but brings some touching pathos to his role as the aging diva. The weakest element is Swenson, who seems a bit ill at ease as Tick/Mitzi (and the actor’s shaky accent often seems closer to Eton than Australia).
Linda Winer, Newsday: ‘Priscilla’ gives a cheerful ride on stage
Howard Shapiro, Philadelphia Inquirer: Priscilla is so sound, so right, and after seeing it, I can’t imagine it any other way. Just give yourself over to its giddy theatrical turns. It is, after all, about acceptance.
Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune: But “Priscilla” has a pulsing theatrical heart and soul, not least because its characters are inveterate creatures of the stage. As directed by Simon Phillips, who has been on this bus for years, the tone is warm and inclusive. “Priscilla” has a rich dynasty of queens, unfazed by any desert and very much at home on Broadway.
Matt Windman, AM New York: “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” is not so much a normal musical but rather a loud, oversized karaoke party and midnight drag show. You really want to have fun, but it is so aggressively campy that it soon becomes irritating and too much to stomach.
New York Times
THEATER REVIEW | ‘PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT‘
With Song in Heart, Pompoms on Head
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Every conceivable surface has been decked with sequins, spattered with colored lights, plastered in mirrored chips or trimmed in feathers and fringe in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” the new musical that shimmied open Sunday night at the Palace Theater. Probably a few inconceivable surfaces have been accessorized with equally exotic detail, but I hesitate to inquire.
Adapted from the 1994 movie about three Australian drag queens on an epic road trip through the outback, this hyperactively splashy show wants so desperately to give audiences a gaudy good time that the results are oddly enervating. Instead of ecstatic high-midnight, when the dance floor is packed and the energy in the room hits a peak, Broadway’s newest karaoke-inspired musical more regularly evokes the later, more dispiriting hours at a nightclub, when the D.J. is on autopilot and only the really hardened club crawlers are still churning away.
Originally produced in Australia and still running in the West End of London, “Priscilla” combines the campy sentimentality about drag life epitomized by “La Cage Aux Folles” (currently in revival on Broadway) with a singalong soundtrack spanning a bewildering array of pop from at least three decades. It’s the kind of mix you might find blaring from the jukebox in a Florida gay bar if patrons of varying ages and argumentative tastes were on hand: everything from Dionne Warwick to Donna Summer and the Village People, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Pat Benatar. Let’s not forget the contribution from that immortal dance-floor diva John Denver.
But while it is performed with gleaming verve and infusions of bawdy humor – Tony Sheldon, who has been with the show from its Australian debut, is particularly winning as the gracious-lady transsexual Bernadette – “Priscilla” feels monotonous and mechanical. It lacks the narrative complexity of “La Cage” (egad, did I just write those words?) and isn’t as impishly clever as guilty-pleasure indulgences like “Mamma Mia!” and “Xanadu,” similarly ditzy musicals inviting audiences to take a mindless boogie down memory lane.
The “Priscilla” film, written and directed by Stephan Elliott, was also a fairly synthetic mash-up of road movie and fish-out-of-water tale. Its chief distinction, aside from the novelty of watching Terence Stamp play a transsexual, was the madcap, Oscar-winning wardrobe dreamed up by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who recreate their greatest hits for the stage version: the gargantuan club-kid rubber platforms, the topiary headpieces, the hot-pink-and-orange sheath constructed entirely of flip-flops.
Mr. Elliott also participates in the stage version, as co-author of the book with Allan Scott. As in the movie a Sydney drag performer, Tick (Will Swenson), professionally and personally known as Mitzi, receives a stern summons from Marion (Jessica Phillips), the wife he left back in the sticks, who is determined to bring about a meeting between Tick and the son he has never known. (The stage version is less coy about the details of Tick’s past.)
Happily for all, Marion runs a casino in remote Alice Springs, and invites Tick to put on a show. He recruits two performing pals to join the trek, without telling them of his ulterior motives: Bernadette (Mr. Sheldon), a mostly retired veteran of the drag scene who views the trip as a useful distraction from his grief over the death of his young lover; and Felicia (Nick Adams), a hard-bodied mischief maker whose barbed repartee with the disapproving Bernadette constitutes a large chunk of the book.
Stocking up on wigs and heels, they pile into a bus acquired by Felicia with the help of his mother’s checkbook. Priscilla, as they christen their lavishly appointed means of transport, twirls around at center stage for much of the show, its walls serving as video screens for fancy digital light shows or flapping upward to expose the improbably deluxe interior, where the ladies swig cocktails and trade acid quips.
Twirling around Priscilla as she makes pit stops both intentional and accidental is a chorus line zipping between roles in camp fantasy numbers – one features a kick line of glittery paint brushes, another a stage full of twirling cupcakes – and as local toughs in greasy denim. These hicks are alternately won over or antagonized by the exotic fauna descending on their dusty towns. Swimming down from the flies or sliding in from the wings are a trio of specialty singers (Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey and Ashley Spencer) who sing the songs to which the men often lip-sync, a busy and bizarre effect for a live musical.
Like Priscilla the bus, “Priscilla” the musical moves in fits and starts under Simon Phillips’s direction, trundling along as a series of interchangeable, aggressively rambunctious dance routines interspersed with catfights and scenes of moist sentiment in which bonds are forged and secrets revealed. (The choreography by Ross Coleman is mostly uninspired music video-style calisthenics.)
It doesn’t help that the songs are often awkward fits for the dramatic situation, a man’s size 12 foot trying to look smart in a delicate Manolo Blahnik heel. At the emotional climax, Tick and his young son duet on “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Always on My Mind.” It’s a little ludicrous.
The performers do their best to spritz some humanity on the proceedings. Mr. Adams doesn’t have much to do other than vamp in flesh-baring costumes and wail an evening’s worth of Madonna cover songs, but he knows his way around a bitchy wisecrack. Mr. Swenson, shorn of the hippie curls he sported in “Hair,” flashes his naughty smile and buffed limbs with precision, and tones down the histrionics for the scenes in which Tick confesses to his pals the awkward truth about the kid and wife back home. (Although in the years since the movie was released, it has become commonplace for gay men to have children, making Bernadette and Felicia’s pearl-clutching reactions questionable.)
The most rewarding role belongs to Mr. Sheldon, who brings an authentic note of dignified grace to his performance as Bernadette. His mothering of both the troubled Tick and the potentially self-destructive Felicia feels honest, and Mr. Sheldon has a way of inflecting the book’s litter of catty zingers with refined nuances that make them feel smarter and fresher than they probably are.
But any flickers of warmth and true human feeling in “Priscilla” are either obscured by another onslaught of gyrating dancers or squashed flat by a giant platform heel. After a while even the festive parade of outlandish costumes, among the show’s more reliably entertaining diversions, begin to feel stale and overworked. At the extended curtain call – aptly set to the catchy ’90s dance floor anthem entitled “Finally” – you are likely to feel slightly dazed and stultified, as if you’d been conked on the head with a disco ball.
PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT
Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, based on the Latent Image/Specific Films Motion Picture, distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., written by Mr. Elliott, produced by Al Clark and Michael Hamlyn; directed by Simon Phillips; choreographed by Ross Coleman; music supervision and arrangements by Stephen (Spud) Murphy; production supervisor, Jerry Mitchell; bus concept and production design by Brian Thomson; costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner; lighting by Nick Schlieper; sound by Jonathan Deans and Peter Fitzgerald; orchestrations by Mr. Murphy and Charlie Hull; music coordinator, John Miller; music director, Jeffrey Klitz; technical supervisor, David Benken; production stage manager, David Hyslop; flying by Foy; makeup design by Cassie Hanlon; associate director, Dean Bryant; associate choreographer, Andrew Hallsworth; associate producer, Ken Sunshine; general manager, B. J. Holt; executive producer, Alecia Parker. Presented by Bette Midler; James L. Nederlander; Garry McQuinn; Liz Koops; Michael Hamlyn; Allan Scott; Roy Furman/Richard Willis; Terry Allen Kramer; Terri and Timothy Childs; Ken Greiner; Ruth Hendel; Chugg Entertainment; Michael Buckley; Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley; Bruce Davey; Thierry Suc /TS3; Bartner/Jenkins; Broadway Across America/H. Koenigsberg; M. Lerner/D. Bisno/K. Seidel/R. Gold; Paul Boskind and Martian Entertainment/Spirtas-Mauro Productions/MAS Music Arts & Show; and David Mirvish, in association with MGM On Stage, Darcie Denkert and Dean Stolber. At the Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway, between 46th and 47th Streets; (877) 250-2929; ticketmaster.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: Will Swenson (Tick/Mitzi), Tony Sheldon (Bernadette), Nick Adams (Adam/Felicia), C. David Johnson (Bob), James Brown III (Jimmy), Nathan Lee Graham (Miss Understanding), J. Elaine Marcos (Cynthia), Mike McGowan (Frank), Jessica Phillips (Marion), Steve Schepis (Farrah/Young Bernadette) and Keala Settle (Shirley), and Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey and Ashley Spencer (Divas).
Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Reviewed by Thom Geier | Mar 20, 2011
Imagine La Cage aux Folles crossed with Rock of Ages and a dash of Mamma Mia! and you’ll get some sense of what awaits you at Broadway’s latest jukebox musical extravaganza, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Based on the 1994 Australian movie about three road-tripping drag queens, this production boasts a score of super-familiar disco and pop hits and some seriously show-stopping costumes designed by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won the Oscar for their work on the film and are safe bet to pick up a Tony this June. You might recall that Gardiner wore a self-made dress of Gold American Express cards to the Oscar-cast and her designs for the on-stage Priscilla are just as delightfully eye-catching and colorfully hilarious.
The book, by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, is a thin road-trip yarn centered on Tick (Hair’s Will Swenson), who agrees to belatedly visit his bizarrely understanding ex-wife (Ashley Spencer) and their button-cute 6-year-old son (Luke Mannikus and Ashton Woerz rotate in the role) in the middle of Australia. Since he can’t afford a plane ticket, Tick decides to road-trip it in a bus with two fellow drag performers, the older grande dame Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and a younger, bitchier Adam (La Cage aux Folles’ Nick Adams). Along the way, the trio encounters the usual assortment of Aussie-fied rural hicks and roughnecks, plus a couple of shameless scene-stealers: Keala Settle as a mullet-haired bar owner with a private yearning for passion and J. Elaine Marcos as a mail-order bride with an unusual, R-rated talent.
The nylon-thin plot is mostly an excuse to set up the classic tunes on the soundtrack. As fans of Glee know by now, there’s a certain pleasure in the truly unlikely segue. It’s natural for Tick to begin ”Say a Little Prayer” seated at the mirror: ”The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup…” But you can imagine the narrative lengths to which the creators must go to introduce Jimmy Webb’s ”MacArthur Park,” which memorably begins: ”Someone left the cake out in the rain.”
Needless to say, the show is campier than a tentful of Boy Scouts (working on their choreography merit badge). And there’s a dance-party atmosphere that helps compensate for the show’s plot implausibilities and clunkier moments. Among the three leads, Adams seems the most solid and comfortably over the top as a bratty young provocateur. Sheldon is not the strongest singer, but brings some touching pathos to his role as the aging diva. The weakest element is Swenson, who seems a bit ill at ease as Tick/Mitzi (and the actor’s shaky accent often seems closer to Eton than Australia).
It’s a safe bet that Priscilla Queen of the Desert will not supplant Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as Glenn Beck’s favorite musical, but others will doubtless have a gay old time. B
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-982-2787)
We three queens: Divas take a musical road trip
7:43 PM CDT, March 20, 2011
– The first tipoff to the desired ambiance at “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” is severe-faced Broadway ushers sporting huge purple boas. The second is the early descent not just of a disco ball, but the mother of all disco balls – a shimmering, spinning colossus that would put even a jet-lagged kangaroo in the mood for a Broadway party. And the third? Well, the opening number is “It’s Raining Men,” warbled by three divas in the sky and underscored by various colorfully attired gents who do their best to eclipse any competing form of precipitation.
The far from revelatory but irresistibly enjoyable and big-hearted confection “Priscilla” has finally spun its disco jukebox stateside, some 17 years after the international release of its cult source film, a scrappy road movie about three divas trekking through the Australian desert. The Broadway debut of this lip-sync-loving trio – now played by the nicely insecure Will Swenson, the exuberantly amusing Nick Adams and Tony Sheldon, the moral center and surrogate parent of the trio, who has superbly crafted the role of Bernadette since her on-stage Aussie beginnings – comes some five years after the Down Under debut of the most commercially successful Australian theatrical export ever.
The show has changed some since it was in London; most notably, the pleasingly earnest Swenson’s character, Tick (aka Mitzi), is now very much at the center of the story, since the journey from Sydney to Alice Springs is not just for a casino show, but also to allow the drag queen Tick to reunite with his sweet young son, a hitherto-repressed product of an earlier life and also a heart-tugging device that allows the show both to have greater emotional stakes and to reinforce its message of tolerance and the importance of all kinds of families. Along the way, Bernadette also finds “A Fine Romance” with a mechanic named Bob (the genial C. David Johnson), a fellow who has been sitting out in the desert repairing cars and waiting for the right girl to come by on a bus that lights up on cue.
Those who relish the harder edges of the world of drag and transgendered performance – the sexual complexity, the oppression, the ambivalence of self-obfuscation – will likely find the huge Broadway “Priscilla” too mainstreamed and overly worried about wowing and comforting the matinee crowd with one flashy costume after another (although these multifarious creations from Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner are truly eye-popping). Sheldon, whose rich performance is crucial to this show staying grounded and authentic amid the flirtatious Adams’ dazzling tricks and the more familiar (but earnestly acted) quest of Swenson’s ambivalent character, does get to remind us all that we are here enjoying choices that come at considerable personal cost to those who make them. The show could hit that note a little harder; it certainly has the entertain-’em-at-all-costs imperative licked.
Overall, the likable gals get little sand in their faces as they vanquish their desert foes – empty gas tanks, intolerant outback rubes. In fact, the tension stutters from the way the most intense conflicts in the piece are front-loaded, making the final push home feel protracted. Like a lot of musicals made from movies, especially those that involve road trips, “Priscilla” suffers from too many short scenes in the second act, forcing the piece into repetitive devices, when we could use more extended drama and maybe an extra weighty 11 o’clock ballad for one or more of these gals to hit out of the desert.
But “Priscilla” has a pulsing theatrical heart and soul, not least because its characters are inveterate creatures of the stage. As directed by Simon Phillips, who has been on this bus for years, the tone is warm and inclusive. “Priscilla” has a rich dynasty of queens, unfazed by any desert and very much at home on Broadway.
“Priscilla Queen of the Desert” opened Sunday at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York. For tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit PriscillaonBroadway.com.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert
This rollicking crowdpleaser in sequins nonetheless packs enough heart to leave the masses enthralled.
By STEVEN SUSKIN
Priscilla, a tricked-up tour bus with a shoe on the roof, rolls onto the stage of the Palace Theater to roars from the audience, and proceeds to turn, twist and light up pink and purple. And then does it again (and again and again). So goes the brashly good-natured Aussie musical to which the bus lends its name, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” which, born from Stephan Elliott’s 1994 film, seems destined to follow the path of “Mamma Mia!” Inartful here, crass there, this rollicking crowdpleaser in sequins nonetheless packs enough heart to leave the masses enthralled.
Tale tells of three drag-show performers on a road trip of discovery through the Outback. Protagonist Tick (Will Swenson) is shamed by his ex-wife into visiting Benji (Luke Mannikus and Ashton Woerz alternating in the role), the 6-year-old son he left behind when he chose to put his mascara on; middle-aged transsexual Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) is looking for one last hurrah; outrageous young buck Adam (Nick Adams) just wants to have fun. Off they go through the desert to the inland casino run by Tick’s estranged wife, beset by rowdy rednecks and a clogged gas tank.
Standout perf comes from Sheldon, an Australian who has played the role on three continents thus far. His Bernadette is simultaneously outrageous and human, caustic yet warmhearted. Swenson, star of the recent “Hair,” does fine in heels and is especially tender when interacting with Benji. Adams, meanwhile, has high spirits and plenty for oglers to ogle. C. David Johnson offers low-key support as a gentle fellow who befriends the trio, and there is a raucously funny contribution from Keala Settle as a gruff lowlife in a poolroom.
Librettists Elliott and Allan Scott spend a bit too much time getting the boys on the bus; once en route, though, there’s not much to do other than spin Priscilla around or bring on folksy townspeople to sing yet another ineffective production number. Second act starts at a low ebb, with the ensemble dragging up audience members for a country hoedown, followed by an extraneous number in which a girl dancer (J. Elaine Marcos) fires Ping-Pong balls out into the auditorium, without using a paddle. If you are so fortunate — or unfortunate — as to have one of these pink balls land in your lap, you will find they bear the show’s logo with the warning “for external use only.”
As with “Mamma Mia!,” existing songs are shoehorned in with little rhyme or reason. (The “Priscilla” film was built on pre-existing disco hits, but only four have been retained in the Broadway song-stack.) The playbill contains 35 producer bios but no mention of the songwriters — who include Bacharach, Madonna and Kern — or singers of the many lip-synched songs.
Finest work of the evening, along with that of Sheldon, comes from costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. The pair shared an Oscar for the film, and their wares here — including those hats! — positively sparkle. Staging by Simon Phillips and choreography by the late Ross Coleman are energetic, if occasionally aimless and overdone. Jerry Mitchell (“Legally Blonde”) is prominently credited as production supervisor, and one expects he’s helped whip “Priscilla” into glossy shape.
Show arrives as an international hit, following stints in Australia, New Zealand, London and Toronto; one can easily anticipate “Priscilla” rolling into major capitals across the world as quickly as they can procure enough feathers. For all the glitz, though — and there is a lot of glitz — there’s a heart ticking true beneath it all, and that should earn “Priscilla” a long and profitable run at the Palace, with the merchandise stand doing big business in purple boas.