Monday, May 2, 2011

Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Priscilla Queen of the Desert, at Broadway's Palace Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

I like to think of Priscilla Queen of the Desert as a palate-cleanser: it was the first show I saw on my first trip to New York City in 2011. And I can describe the experience in three words - fun, fun, fun.

The musical is based on the 1994 cult-classic Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, about three drag queens, one of them a transsexual, who travel 1,700 miles from Sydney to remote Alice Springs in a converted bus.

I've always enjoyed road stories. They generally have great scenery, mismatched companions who squabble and get into scrapes along the way and in the end, they're also about a journey of personal discovery.

Priscilla has all of those elements wrapped in a package that's comical and poignant with great production numbers and mostly terrific performances. And while it doesn't have much scenery, it does include the single most famous line in Australian cinema history.

The bus, designed by Brian Thomson, was pretty cool. (I wish I had one in my backyard.) The very colorful and often outrageous costumes were created by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won an Oscar for their work on the movie.

As the transgendered Bernadette, Tony Sheldon was wonderful. He was so believable as a woman and so moving as aging performer. Sheldon has been playing the role since the earliest incarnation of the musical in Australia, and he totally inhabits it. Plus, he has some sweet moments with C. David Johnson as Bob, the mechanic who's smitten with him.

I also loved Nick Adams as Adam/Felicia, the younger and more immature of the three. He and Sheldon are so funny with their snarky back-and-forth banter. And Adams is responsible for one of the sexiest - if not the sexiest - Broadway production numbers I've ever seen, playing the Madonna role in "Material Girl," accompanied by some scantily clad chorus boys. I felt flushed!

Unfortunately, Will Swenson, so perfect as the leader of the hippie tribe in Hair, was a bit stiff as Tick/Mitzi. Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott have moved around parts of the story, so we know right away that Tick is traveling to Alice Springs to see his ex-wife, who runs a casino, and connect with his young son Benji.

Swenson has some sweet moments with the boy, played by a very cute Luke Mannikus, but overall, he didn't seem to be having as much fun as everyone else. Maybe that's the nature of his character, to be more serious and detached. But his big solo number, "True Colors," should have been a showstopper and it wasn't for me. All I could think was, "Cyndi Lauper did it better."

In March, a New York Times article chronicled the changes that have taken place with the show en route to its Broadway debut. Some people questioned whether the campy aspects had been toned down and the musical made "less gay" to appeal to American audiences.

It's not my place to judge that, but the creative team hasn't downplayed the homophobia the trio encounter. When it comes, you gasp because it's shocking and it happens to people with whom you've been laughing and having a good time. It's a powerful reminder that bigoted words hurt, no matter how much we try to just let them roll off our backs.

While Priscilla isn't a life-changing or innovative show, I had a good time. Yes, it's a light and fluffy jukebox musical but there are flashes of emotion and heart that make this a trip worth taking.


Dale said...

Brilliant review. I saw the gents / ladies here in Toronto before they headed your way and agree with everything you said! We're brilliant! And fun! :-)

Esther said...

Thanks, Dale! I'm so glad you got a chance to see Priscilla in Toronto. I know some people who love the movie were disappointed but I think they kept enough of the fun and the heart and like I said, I love a road trip!