Hats and bustiers off to the wardrobe department at "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," because without them there'd be no show.
Dressers, pressers and supervisors do heavy lifting at this glossy costume party masquerading as a musical.
Based on Stephan Elliott's 1994 movie about three Australian drag queens, the production delivers eye-poppingly flashy (and fleshy) fun — for a while.
The joyride runs out of gas because Simon Phillips' busy big-budget spectacle works too hard to wow. As one character notes, less can be more.
As is, "Priscilla," adapted by Elliott and Allan Scott, is another movie plopped onto the stage without developing the plot or relationships. Energy was spent on finding ways to blast confetti and Ping-Pong balls, and to ensure audience participation. But those tricks, along with crass one-liners, a trio of gravity-defying girl goddesses and a tricked-out bus can't keep you from noticing what's missing.
The slim plot follows Tick, a female impersonator crossing the Outback in a rattletrap bus to meet his 6-year-old son for the first time.
He's hauled along Bernadette and Adam, two other cross-dressers. How they're friends is a mystery, which may be why there's never an event that brings them closer. Why Tick fears "coming out" about having a kid is left unanswered, too. Despite the cell phone we see on stage, attitudes about tolerance are so rotary dial.
The songs cover a wide array of disco staples, Madonna hits, Burt Bacharach tunes and Elvis. It makes for a fizzy musical mixtape, but one that lacks the focus of jukebox diversions like "Rock of Ages" or "Mamma Mia!"
Numbers in "Priscilla" have been chosen for their telltale title or first line, instead of what the songs say. A funeral suffices as a reason for "Don't Leave Me This Way." A half-baked "MacArthur Park" fantasy number emerges because, well, Tick sees a cake.
The cast has varying success with the sketchy alter egos. Tony Sheldon plays the clear-headed but over-the-hill showgirl, Bernadette, a role he originated in Sydney five years ago, and he is flat-out wonderful. He's tough and tender, knows how to get a laugh and lets Bernadette's soul shine as bright as his glittery getups.
As a Madonna-mad Adam, Nick Adams, Broadway's Mr. Zero Percent Body Fat, is fittingly bitchy, always ready with a snarky crack. His gym-buffed glutes, showcased in an itty-bitty thong, come within a thread of being TMI.
Will Swenson plays the insecure Tick and appears unsteady both vocally and in the high-camp drag numbers. The writers do him no favor by soaking father-son scenes in gooey sap.
Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (who won an Oscar for their work in the film) share credit for the real star attraction: the 500 costumes. At their best, the clothes are truly awesome. At their worst, they are dehumanizing. Throughout "Priscilla," the three leads don't look male or female but like bizarre aliens. Call me a party pooper, but that was enough to make this supposed frolic a drag.
So confident is “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” in its ability to ramp up the thrills that it doesn’t wait for the finale to drop the confetti — it falls a mere 30 minutes in shamelessly feel-good show won't do to entertain, from bringing theatergoers onstage to dance to lowering its singing divas from the rafters. It may look a bit ramshackle at times, but "Priscilla" has a big, joyous heart.
Adapted by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott from Elliott's 1994 movie, "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," this 2006 jukebox musical has made a few pit stops before landing on Broadway, where it opened last night.
That's fitting, in a way, since "Priscilla" is about three flamboyant misfits journeying through Australia's backwaters in the titular custom bus.
Our trio is made up of two drag queens -- sensitive Tick/Mitzi (Will Swenson, from "Hair") and brash Adam/Felicia (Nick Adams) -- plus the older, wiser transsexual Bernadette (Tony Sheldon). This guarantees a couple of things: There will be "oh snap!" lines, and the song list will read like the gay holy scriptures: "It's Raining Men," "Go West," "Hot Stuff," "I Will Survive."
Tick, Adam and Bernadette trek from Sydney to Alice Springs to appear in a casino show and, incidentally, meet Tick's young son -- it's not just in "La Cage aux Folles" that future drag artists sire children. On the way they visit several bars in the boondocks, where they stick out like neon signs. Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner's costumes almost require a return visit to fully absorb their delirious ingenuity.
Zippily directed by Simon Phillips, the show bursts with a festive spirit that helps overlook the ensemble's small size and the primitiveness of Ross Coleman's choreography.
But what really sustains "Priscilla" is the chemistry between the three leads. And here the triangle's lopsided.
At the peak is the remarkable Sheldon. The Australian actor, who created the role in Sydney, nails the balance of vulnerability and toughness, pathos and pride that keeps Bernadette going.
But Swenson, likable as he is, doesn't have a campy bone in his body, and seems miscast as Tick. Meanwhile, Adams' Popeye biceps are incongruous. When Felicia gets bashed by yahoos, it makes no sense: She looks as if she could easily flatten them all.
Oh well . . . there are still those outfits and those songs. When dancers dressed as giant cupcakes appear during "MacArthur Park," we enter some kind of psychedelic parallel dimension. And, for a musical, that's a very good thing.
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, 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.
If your idea of a good show is one in which the chorus boys are dressed up to look like cupcakes, confetti is dropped at 8:34 and "I Will Survive" is sung twice, read no further. "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" (no comma, please) is the musical for you. If, on the other hand, you have an old-fashioned yen for shows in which touching things happen to believable people and the songs have something to do with the plot, stay as far away as possible from the Palace Theatre. (Wyoming might be far enough.) Not only is "Priscilla" a sequin-encrusted dragfest without a heart, but it's one of the biggest missed opportunities in the recent history of Broadway, a pointless musical version of a sweet little movie out of which something smart—and, yes, touching—might easily have been made. Instead we get human cupcakes.
Let's go back to the movie for a moment. Released in 1994, "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" told of how three drag queens, one of them an aging transsexual played, amazingly enough, by Terence Stamp, traveled across the Australian desert in a run-down motor home, looking for love in all the wrong places. Despite a few overly obvious moments, it was a modest and poignant film not unworthy of "La cage aux folles," by which it was clearly inspired, and has since become something of a cult classic.
Turning "Priscilla" into a stage musical is so good an idea that one wonders why it took so long. But in doing so, Stephan Elliott (who wrote and directed the movie) and Allan Scott (who collaborated on the book) have leached out every bit of sentiment from the film, replacing it with brass-plated showbiz pseudo-feeling. What makes the movie work, by contrast, is that the plights of the three principal characters are genuinely felt: We are invited to identify with their struggle to make their way in an uncomprehending world. The musical numbers are clever and fun, but they're not the point of "Priscilla."
The reason why the stage version of "La cage aux folles" works is that it preserves this same distinction: You care about the characters, just as you do in the film. In the stage version of "Priscilla," you don't care about anything but the costumes, each set of which is gaudier and more preposterous than the one that preceded it. (Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, the designers, also did the costumes for the film.) It doesn't help, to put it mildly, that the "score" is a jukebox-style string of lip-sync classics like "What's Love Got to Do With It" and "Material Girl," with Jerome Kern's "A Fine Romance" and John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" thrown in to confuse the issue. I don't much care for the warmed-over score that Jerry Herman contributed to "La Cage," but at least Mr. Herman made a good-faith effort to write musical numbers that reflect and amplify the show's underlying emotional current. The songs in "Priscilla," on the other hand, are mere occasions for ritual handclapping. As for Ross Coleman's choreography, you'll see better dances in theme parks.
Nick Adams, Tony Sheldon and Will Swenson, the traveling drag queens of "Priscilla," mostly do their own singing and shouldn't, especially Mr. Swenson, who has no voice at all. He plays Tick, the central character, who is traveling from Sydney to Alice Springs to see his young son for the first time. Yes, I know, it's "La Cage" all over again, but in the film version of "Priscilla" this subplot is played straight, so to speak, and you don't feel manipulated by the payoff—not too much, anyway. On stage it's turned into the kind of mechanical plot twist that gives TV movies a bad name, and Mr. Swenson and Jessica Phillips, who plays his wife, don't even try to breathe the slightest semblance of life into the dialogue. It's as though Simon Phillips, the director, had told them, "O.K., kids, step on it, gotta get through the exposition. Now bring on the giant spangled shoe!"
It seems that in order to keep the tourists happy, the book of "Priscilla" has been toned down considerably from the version that played in Australia and in London's West End. If this is the family-friendly version, I tremble to think what kinds of parents were taking their kids to see it elsewhere. The sight gags are blatant, the jokes crass and stale: "I've had it up to here." "Ouch! Lucky old you."
Since there really isn't anything good about "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" except the costumes, the pit band and the hard-working chorus, I'll let it go at that. Especially seeing as how Broadway is already the home of two shows—the Menier Chocolate Factory's revival of "La Cage" and Brian Bedford's brilliant mounting of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest"—in which drag is employed with supreme resourcefulness and theatricality, I suggest you stay home, rent the movie and save yourself a hundred bucks and 2½ hours' worth of noisy boredom.