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A CurtainUp Review
Priscilla Queen Of The Desert — The Musical
By Elyse Sommer
The scaled down production of the latest revival of La Cage aux Folles for London's intimate Menier Chocolate Factory was successful enough to move to a larger London house and cross the ocean to Broadway where it's been a big enough hit to be on its second cast. (review) But if you've been yearning for that old-fashioned razzle-dazzle spectacle, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Musical is your ticket with its 500 costumes, 261 costume changes with 300 hats and head dresses, 72 wigs (one a towering 3 feetl). There's also a 6 foot tall high heel encased in Swarovski stones that travels on top of the gyrating bus that ends up painted in pink lights and gives this eye-popping, foot-tapping show its title. Wow!
It's the kind of show the double balconied Palace was built for (The original, splashy La Cage aux Folles played there from 1983 to 1987). It's reminiscent of the grandeur of the Ziegfeld Follies, but the opulence of the production is the only thing old-fashioned about Priscilla The Musical— not with 25 producers, generous helpings of tunes by Madonna and other disco favorites, a trio of Australian drag queens, high tech stagecraft, and just enough plot to add a little nuance and heart tug to the fun.
The Palace is the dream at the end of the rainbow stop for Priscilla Queen of the Desert's long journey. The story of the three outrageously costumed drag queens traversing the outback on the way to a gig in Alice Springs, began as a 1995 movie about 3 lipsynching, fantastically costumed drag queens headed for a gig in Alice Springs. The cult movie to musical stage adaptation premiered in its creators' home country, Australia, in 2006 and had follow-up productions in New Zealand and Great Britain. While the American production has undergone cast, book and song changes to insure its appeal to the broadest possible audience; to be specific: toning down the risque stuff, ratcheting up the family values aspect of gay life and substituting some songs by singers more instantly known to Americans than Australians (Madonna instead of Kylie Minogue).
But not to worry. The Broadway Priscilla is still campy and over-the top and the costumes and props (the real stars!) are nothing short of mind-boggling. The song substitutions work well and the big winners that Lizzie Loveridge praised in her review of the London production are all there: from "What's Love Got to Do With it" to " I Will Survive" to that terrific little bit of La Traviata as well as a just long enough but not too long audience participation dance number at the top of the second act.
The music is loud but, happily, not ear shattering like so many shows in which the performers wear head mikes. Neither songs or dialogue have that over-miked, hollow sound so common in large venues like the Palace. The songs are, however, delivered with enhanced vocal and visual power by three Angel-like Divas who, suspended from wires, make regular appearances hovering and gliding above and across the stage (Jacqueline Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, Ashley Spencer). So, yes the show even offers a bit of flying, but without the glitches that have dogged the season's news hogging but still unofficially opened Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Will Swenson as Tick, aka Mitzi, initiates the bus trip to Alice Springs where his former wife Marion (Jessica Phillips) runs a night club. That's also where she's raising their 6-year-old son Benji (the delightful Luke Mannikus, at the performance I saw, alternating with Ashtorn Woerz ), who Tick has never met, fearful that the boy will be put off by his drag queen career. To persuade Tick to finally meet his son, Marion invites him to bring a few other "Girls" and put on a show at her club. Those girls — the middle aged transsexual Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and Adam, a.k.a. Felicia (Nick Adams) (— turn a motorhome ride across the Outback and to Alice Springs into a Gay Three Musketeers road trip.
, Swenson has the sort of muscular, all-American good looks that makes his having tried conventional marriage believable, but he fits as convincingly into his drag costumes and routines. Adams is the perfect bad boy for whom the trip across the desert is a chance to fulfill his dream "to boldly go where no drag queen has gone before. Travel to the center of Australia, climb to the top of Ayres Rock in full showgirl tits and feathers and sing a dazzling medley of Madonna classics" which does little to make Bernadette less iffy about Tick's enlisting him to join them ("Thatís great. Just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock").
Tick is the nominal main character who drives the family friendly element of the plot, but it's Tony Sheldon, the Aussie who's been with the show since it's beginning, who's not only the most infectiously funny but the most heartwarming member of the trio. Bernadette's unlikely romance with one of the auto mechanic Bob (played with natural charm and believability by C. David Johnson) leaves his embarassing wife (J. Elaine Marcos) for Bernadette, but not before she has a chance to demonstrate her own outlandish act which sends ping pong balls bouncing into the audience.
The encounters with the narrow minded locals by the riders of the bus that gives the show its title diversify the bus trip. Some decidedly unpleasant events such as Adam/Felicia getting beaten up and the bus spray painted with gay bashing graffiti don't keep things dark for long — the bus is given a dzzling coat of pink paint with the help of lighting designe Nick Schlieper and Bernadette hilariously gives the yokel who beat up her bus mate a taste of his own medicine.
By the time Priscilla has pulled into Alice Springs, Tick and Benji have unsurprisingly bonded, and the whole company is on stage for their curtain call, it would take a diehard curmudgeon not to join in with the rest of the rocking and hand clapping audience. Priscilla Queen of the Desert is not a groundbreak new musical in the tradition of big classics with original scores and more rock solid plots but more like Mama Mia . But then having it follow in that show's long-running footsteps, wouldn't make those 25 producers unhappy. And if Priscilla runs long enough, maybe lead producer Bette Midler will make a guest appearance.