From left, Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon and Nick Adams in the
Broadway production of “Priscilla”
Photo © by Joan Marcus
Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical
Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Music and lyrics by various pop artists
Directed by Simon Phillips
Palace Theatre, New York
(See video short below.)
Jukebox musicals don’t get more jukeboxy than “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” The movie on which the show is based, an unlikely on-the-road caper involving three drag queens trailing miles of brightly colored fabric across the outback from Sydney to Alice Springs, famously pumped a soundtrack loaded with disco-era classics (“I Love the Nightlife,” “Shake Your Groove Thing,” “I Will Survive”) and ABBA ABBA ABBA. It’s entirely possible that the worldwide success of the 1994 movie started the let’s-reclaim-ABBA craze that led to the 1999 hit show “Mamma Mia,” which stitched a dozen ABBA songs into an original narrative about a girl trying to find the father she never knew. “Mamma Mia” in turn has paved the way for the stage version of “Priscilla” to get away with making a Broadway musical that abandons any pretense of original music but shoehorns in a veritable Top 40 Hit Parade heavy on the mid-’80s: “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Pop Muzik,” “We Belong.” Plus some random ’60s numbers (“I Say a Little Prayer,” “Color My World”). And in the place of ABBA, wall-to-wall Madonna! Are we at a Broadway show or karaoke night?
“Priscilla the Musical” began life onstage in Australia, naturally (where the presiding musical deity was Kylie Minogue), hatched by two key participants in the film’s success: writer-director Stephan Elliott and the costume design team of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won the Academy Award at age 25 for their outrageously inventive outfits. On the way to New York, via success in London’s West End, the show acquired a heart-warming narrative about a boy longing to find the father he never knew. Of course, since the father he never knew turns out to be a gay guy whose friends call him Mitzi and who ekes out a living lip-synching in frocks and Dynel, there’s plenty of drag humor and culture clash before the journey ends.
Spending the running time of “Priscilla,” as I did, calculating how cold-bloodedly it mashes together “La Cage aux Folles” and “Mamma Mia” with a smidgen of “Rock of Ages” is a good way not to enjoy the Broadway musical. I couldn’t help regretting that whatever charming originality the movie possessed has been watered down and homogenized for maximum Broadway tourist consumption. The most charitable perspective would be to acknowledge that it’s not ideally meant for the Sondheim-and-Stoppard crowd. Instead, it’s like a Vegas floor-show, a somewhat racy but ultimately inoffensive homo/bi/transgender sing-along musical for the whole family. Every queen who’s already seen “Mamma Mia” three times now has a new show to bring Aunt Minnie from Cincinnati to.
It seems like every few years a show comes along that gets called “the gayest thing you’ve ever seen on Broadway.” “Priscilla” wrestles the title out of the hands of its previous owner, “Xanadu.” It’s perhaps a measure of the times that mainstream culture can handle increasingly heavy doses of gay humor, the notion of gay parenthood, even stark depictions of homophobia, as in the scene where the road-tripping trio returns from winning over the locals in a rough rural outpost only to find their tour bus (that would be Priscilla) spray-painted along one side: FUCK OFF, FAGGOTS. This would be the “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” segment of the evening, 21st century remix. Hurt feelings get quickly smoothed over with the rainbow anthem, “True Colors.”
“Priscilla” is not trashy, and it’s not cheap—no expense was spared to fill the stage with one dazzling/tacky drag number after another. The finale alone must have cost a quarter of the budget. It looks like Burning Man, without the drugs. Of the three leading performers, Will Swenson as Tick is the blandest. An entire one-joke digression is created in Act II to give him a big go-for-it number but it falls about as flat as that cake left out in the rain. Tony Sheldon, a hard-working Australian actor-writer-director, has the tough job of erasing your memories of Terence Stamp, who was the movie’s classy secret weapon as the tough yet vulnerable Bernadette (known as Ralph before she had “the surgery”). But Sheldon manages to pull it off, channeling Tallulah Bankhead more than anyone else. And Nick Adams pretty much steals the show as the brasher of the young drag queens, Adam aka Felicia—he’s a terrific singer, dancer, muscly acrobat, and sassy bitch. Three leather-lunged actual female divas (Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, and Ashley Spencer) descend from the rafters to belt out some of the numbers that the drag performers lip-synch. All the performances are secondary, though, to the costume-and-scenery spectacle, efficiently managed by Simon Phillips with a lot of help from Broadway’s premier song-and-dance stager, Jerry Mitchell.