“Priscilla Queen of the Desert” is a campy, gay, disco party. Need I say more? Oh, yes, it’s lots of fun. While the original movie had the feel of a charming independent road trip movie that focused on the trials and tribulations of three drag queens struggling to survive in an alien environment (the Australia Outback), the Broadway musical is an e-ticket ride through the music and spirit of the 1970s and 80s liberation, with three charming drag queens as the ultimate embodiment of the times.
This is not to say that Priscilla is not a wonderful evening on Broadway. It is. The audience has come to have a good time – they clap in rhythm from the first cords of “It’s Raining Men” sung by 3 Divas who are both the show’s musical backup group and its Greek chorus of commentators. It is clear that the production’s “we’re partying” atmosphere is the intended effect when the would-be Tina Turner drag interrupts her “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” looking into the audience and, noticing latecomers, breaks the fourth wall and chasses up to the edge of stage and asks, “Can I get you something? Like a watch?”
The basic elements of the film remain. Three drag queens – one: a young disco bunny; one: a worn-down but classic vestige of a time when drag was an exotic evening on-the-town for straights; and one: an absentee father struggling to reconcile his life choices with his identity. Some of the story’s original poignancy is maintained, particularly in the final scenes when the would-be father, Tick, finds reconciliation with his past in the far-off Outback – after all, whose heart would not be warmed by a six-year-old telling his father there will be room in his separate bedroom for his boyfriend, when he gets one. And the basic collision of personalities among the three showgirl/men that made their confinement in a bus into a “Golden Girls” for queers (as if the original Golden Girls was not queer enough) continues to provide much of the humor and the ultimate pathos.
But the show is really a disco party, complete with tasteless, but flashy costumes and lots and lots of bumping and grinding. The writers have ingeniously adapted a collection of 20 hits from the period to the events of the road trip. “I Say a Little Prayer” expresses Tick’s longing to belong and “I Will Survive” is this show’s “I Am What I Am.” But most of the music is set to extravagant production numbers that draw the audience into the festivities, at one point literally dragging audience members onto the stage (now there’s something that hasn’t been done since last season, re.: Hair).
For the most part, these numbers are very entertaining. The costumes and dance routines are right on the mark. However, occasionally, the scenic elements do not match the “fabulousness” of the number. In many classic Broadway musicals, certain songs are called “traveler songs,” so named because a simple backdrop descends to camouflage a major scenery change while an often gratuitous number is sung. Modern technology has eliminated the need for “travelers” but many Broadway musicals continue to use minimal scenery for brief “throw-away” scenes. But when the song is “I Love the Nightlife” or “Shake Your Groove Thing” and three men are decked out in sequins and long eyelashes, the environment is important. The show has several fully decked-out production numbers making these less realized numbers even flatter. Watching the three divas descend from the sky on cue in the middle of the desert definitely ratchets up the audience’s expectations. It’s hard to feel disco-esque without vibrating walls and electrified scenery.
That said, there are lots of excitingly designed and staged numbers and the all-important Priscilla, the bus that transports our queens through the desert, is a technological wonder. The cast is uniformly good. Tony Sheldon, who originated the role of Bernadette in the Australian and British staging of the musical, is a treasure as the not-quite over-the-hill veteran of drag’s heyday. He exudes dignity and warmth, even when bitching at his young rival, Adam, a.k.a Felicia, played winningly by Nick Adams.
Will Swenson plays the most complex character, the middle-aged drag whose life crisis – returning to his biological family – provides the res gestae for the evening’s entertainment. Mr. Swenson frequently appeared to be a little lost in his part. This may not be his fault. Much of the substance of the story has been drained and filled with splashy Las Vegas style hoopla. It’s tough to portray psychological ambiguity in the midst of that level of artificiality.
There are a lot of outstanding supporting performances. C. David Johnson is perfect as the broken-down desert rat, Bob, who becomes the trio’s travelling mechanic midway through their journey. Johnson actually gets the audience to accept his growing affection for Bernadette without broaching the “is he or isn’t he” question head on. The three divas, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, and Ashley Spencer are dynamite in both their backup and featured songs. J. Elaine Marcos gives new meaning to the term “over-the-top,” with the aid of some ping-pong balls, as Johnson’s mail-order bride. However, the real treat of the evening comes from Keala Settle as Shirley, the “ample” mistress of redneck Broken Hill Saloon. Her rendition, vocally and physically, of “I Like the Nightlife” rocks-the-house, musically and comically.
This Broadway production appears to have been targeted at the emerging tourist-based musical spectacle audience. After all, eventually they will just run out of “Friends of Dorothy” patrons who dominated the crowd at our press preview performance. You can almost forget that this is a show about three adult male homosexual cross-dressers. Even the show’s most direct challenge to the audience’s complacency, the “Fuck Off Faggots” message painted on their bus after their appearance at the redneck bar, is a pretty half-hearted attempt to portray the challenges of gays outside of the insulation of an urban environment. But gay liberation and identity crises are not the meat of “Priscilla.” It’s about dancing in your seats. And dance we do!