Revue: "Priscilla Reine du Désert, la Comédie Musicale".
A gaudy, glitzy bus named Priscilla rolls into NY
By JOCELYN NOVECK, AP National Writer – Sun Mar 20, 10:56 pm ET
NEW YORK – It is either the most gloriously sublime or the most stunningly ridiculous moment in "Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the Musical," depending on your perspective.
A gaggle of drag queens dressed as cupcakes topped with pistachio frosting twirls onstage, candles on their heads and bearing tall parasols, the whole wacky scene inspired by the line "Someone left the cake out in the rain" from the famous disco song "MacArthur Park."
Remember that perspective thing we mentioned?
Some people — many people, likely — won't be able to get enough of "Priscilla," which opened Sunday at the Palace Theatre, a gaudy, bawdy, corny, campy and good-naturedly vulgar jukebox musical that's been one of the most anticipated Broadway shows this season.
Others may be put off by its relentless naughtiness in the name of fun, and humor as broad as the Australian outback that its main characters traverse on their rickety bus. Those seeking refined wit and subtlety should look elsewhere.
But it's hard to imagine people wandering into "Priscilla," based on the 1994 cult film and already a hit in Australia and London's West End, not knowing what they're getting into: a loud, boisterous evening fueled by familiar disco tunes and some of the zaniest costumes in memory. (A few questions arise: Did they raid Cher's closet? A Bob Mackie warehouse? Are there a lot of naked birds flying around?)
The plot is a spare one. Three drag performers set off through the harsh desert from Sydney to Alice Springs, where they have a gig at a casino. Their chosen transport: a beat-up bus they christen, yes, Priscilla. On the way they encounter the harsh reality of intolerance in the countryside, meet a warmhearted auto mechanic and do a lot of lip-syncing.
The trip has been engineered by Tick — Mitzi is his stage name — and he has an ulterior motive: a young son in Alice Springs that he's never met. The show's creators have beefed up this father-son thread of the plot to warm the hearts of Broadway audiences.
As Tick, actor Will Swenson, so appealing in the recent revival of "Hair," has a tough task: He must appear ambivalent — not easy in such an unsubtle atmosphere — torn between cravings for fatherhood and his chosen existence. Swenson conveys this duality nicely, even if he occasionally seems a touch uneasy in the role.
Not so Tony Sheldon, the Australian actor who is so comfortable as the older transsexual Bernadette, having played the role well over 1,000 times overseas, that he barely seems to be speaking from a script. Sheldon's heartfelt performance is a welcome counterweight to the wackier parts of the show; it's not going too far to say he's the glue that keeps it together.
Rounding out the trio is Adam, aka Felicia, a younger, campier drag queen. Nick Adams gives the character a winning youthfulness and energy. (He is also physically so well-toned that he gets actual catcalls from the audience.) Another adjustment for New York: Adam's idol, Aussie Kylie Minogue, has been changed to Madonna.
Adam gets his share of the more leaden dialogue: It is he, for example, who must draw laughs from juxtaposing the words "hormone" and "whore moan." Tick also gets a doozy: "Shut your von Trapp." And that's perhaps all the dialogue that can safely be quoted here, since the rest is sexual innuendo.
But Adam also gets the idea to paint Priscilla a shade of defiant pink. (The old bus is actually a highly computerized set piece that can move and change colors.) And that launches one of the funniest ensemble moments: a chorus of singing paintbrushes, perhaps a close second to the cupcake scene — which, incidentally, has inspired a real cupcake at Manhattan's high-end Magnolia Bakery.
In a show where men are front and center, the Divas must be mentioned — the three women who do much of the singing in the show, sometimes onstage, sometimes off and often suspended high above it: Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey and Ashley Spencer.
Nathan Lee Graham does a killer Tina Turner impression. And as Marion, Tick's wife, the talented Jessica Phillips ("Next to Normal") is underused but a welcome presence.
The show is directed by Simon Phillips, with a book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott. Among its many producers: Bette Midler. And the eye-popping costumes are by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who created the Oscar-winning designs for the film.
They save some of their best for last — in fact, for the curtain call. (Is there no Tony for best curtain call?) Cast members come out first as cockatoos. Then a few emus. Then come the lizards, the koalas and the kangaroos. Finally, the three leads come out, in crazy get-ups with something like billowing sails attached — they seem ready to catch the next strong wind.
Among the show's flaws are some inexplicable moments. At one point, seemingly unrelated to the plot, Adam lip-syncs "Sempre Libre" from "La Traviata." It's hard to figure out why.
It seems odd, too, when Bernadette offers her mechanic friend a cake as they sit outside the bus. Why do they have a cake? Is it someone's birthday?
It's all left hanging until we realize ... The cake is LEFT OUT IN THE RAIN. Cue "MacArthur Park." The crowd loves it. At such moments of go-for-broke zaniness, quibbles seem beside the point.
In this theater publicity image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Will Swenson is shown in a scene from, 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical,' performing at The Palace Theatre in New York.
Photo: AP/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus.