Priscilla Queen of the Desert
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 22, 2011
Ok, so we've got more than two dozen dance hits, including disco anthems like "I Love the Nightlife" and "It's Raining Men" and "I Will Survive." We've got a collection of gaudy, glitzy costumes—and not just the dresses, folks; the green glitter pajamas, for example, are something to behold, believe me. We've got a passel of drag queens, among them all three of the show's leading characters. (Plus a cute little boy, son of one of the drag queens.) We've got a bus that does a variety of tricks such as lighting up with big dayglo patterns when the mood strikes it. We've got acres of tinsel and confetti falling onto the audience from the ceiling. We've got an enormous mirror ball, for gosh sakes.
So how is it that Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Broadway's newest musical, is so dull?
This was the kind of show where I found myself checking my watch so often that it didn't have time to move between peeks. Its unengaging-ness, if that's a word, is matched only by its ineptitude. I know, making a big splashy musical is the least precise of sciences; a miracle when it occurs. But Priscilla, of all properties, felt like a natural. Which is why I'm so disappointed now that I've seen it.
The story echoes that of the mid-'90s Australian film of the same title. Tick, a performer at a drag club in Sydney (under the name Mitzi Mytosis), wants to finally meet his son, who lives with Tick's wife Marion in the central Australian city of Alice Springs. Marion runs a casino and she offers Tick a gig at her establishment if he will make the journey. Tick recruits Bernadette, a transsexual a generation older who was once the star of a classy drag revue called Les Girls, and Adam, a rambunctious younger performer (drag name: Felicia Jollygoodfellow) to accompany him on the trek, telling them only about the show they will do and not about Marion (at least not right away) and certainly not about Benji, his son. And so this unlikely trio buys a beaten up old bus, christens it Priscilla, and heads off on as unorthodox a road trip as we can imagine...except it's of course very orthodox, ultimately, in that all will discover important truths about themselves and become enabled to move on to the next stages of growth in their lives. That's not meant to denigrate, by the way: Priscilla contains a plot that's likeable and utterly life-affirming, even if a little unusual.
Book writers Stephan Elliott (who scripted the movie) and Allan Scott do not satisfactorily solve the problem of turning a road movie into a big musical comedy. They add color via a trio of women singers, billed simply as "Divas," who sing many of the show's songs and serve as fantasy projections for our main characters...sometimes. Musical numbers organically flow from the story and setting in the form of drag sequences, and most of the disco selections are served up in this fashion. But slower numbers from the same period, like "Always on My Mind" and "I Say a Little Prayer," are done as book songs, which is to say they are sung by one character to another in a non-performative context, which makes very little sense in a world where all of the main characters are performers. I mean, when Bernadette reassures Tick with "True Colors," surely she knows she's singing a Cyndi Lauper song—right?
More problematic are aspects of the basic stagecraft. Ross Coleman's choreography feels repetitious and uninspired. Simon Phillips's staging is often confusing (for example, in the opening scene, the customers at a drag club enter through what looks like a glittery stage curtain and then strip off their jackets suggestively, which made me think for a few moments that they were strippers). Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner's costumes are certainly original and flashy, but they seldom feel glamorous, and by the finale—in which some characters are dressed as kangaroos and koala bears—they feel much too inspired by The Lion King for their own good. Brian Thompson's set is fun in places but sparse in many others; the climactic number at the end of Act Two, set atop a mountain peak, has no set at all—it's literally performed in front of a red curtain. I wondered why no one in the production had noticed that for the emotional high point of the show not even a drawing of a setting sun—or something—had been provided.
The cast works hard. The Divas—Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, and Ashley Spencer—anchor the piece and, as mentioned, get much of the best music. Tony Sheldon as Bernadette is the other invaluable player; he inhabits the role gallantly, despite the many hackneyed lines and jokes he's been given to say, and we really believe in both his sexuality and his search for a soulmate. Nick Adams as Adam/Felicia gives a brash, exhibitionistic performance that was not to my taste. Will Swenson as Tick/Mitzi is at his best in his big second act number, "MacArthur Park, " in which he seems to be living out Tick's boyhood dream...which is apparently to be the leading male dancer in a big Broadway musical (this is the occasion for which Tick wears the fancy green pajamas. Wouldn't a drag queen's dream put her in a dress?)
I was sure I would enjoy myself at Priscilla Queen of the Desert. I'm completely ready for a cheerful, glitzy, over-the-top musical comedy that can wash my cares away for a few hours. But, as too frequently happens on Broadway these days, my cares just multiplied as I enumerated all the ways this show, for which tickets go for $100+, falls far short of even mediocrity. Not a relaxing experience at all, I'm afraid.