Sunday, March 27, 2011

Priscilla Queen of the Desert

I expected I was going to either love or hate Priscilla Queen of the Desert because it sounded too outrageous to experience mildly or with mixed feeling. I’m happy to report I had a fabulous time and would go again in a heartbeat.

I hadn’t seen the 1994 movie on which it is based but I just ordered it from the library. The Broadway version, written by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott and directed by Simon Phillips, takes its plot -- and I use the word loosely -- of three drag queens on a road trip through the Australian outback, and turns it into a jukebox musical, that easy-way-out form that takes popular music and builds (contrives) a plot around it rather than create original music to support a story.

Jersey Boys is by far the best of the jukes I had seen previously because it tells the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, so it’s natural to blends in their hits.

Priscilla wisely chooses the opposite approach, devising hilarious ways of incorporating songs, such as having one of the queens, in full makeup, sing “Say a Little Prayer” at his vanity while looking at a picture of the 6-year-old son he has never met. Another features that 80s disco hit “Don’t Leave Me This Way” sung by a middle-aged queen mourning at the funeral for her 25-year-old husband. So wacky. Do not go to this show expecting anything serious.

One of the most uproariously funny scenes is played to “MacArthur Park” and offers dancing cupcakes and plenty of sweet green icing flowing down. Costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzie Gardiner and lighting designer Nick Schlieper should start writing their Tony speeches now. (Chappel and Gardiner won Oscars for their movie designs and an Olivier Award for the London stage production, which is still running.)

The two dozen songs are hits of yesteryear by artists as diverse as Dionne Warwick, Donna Summer, Madonna and Pat Benatar. The actors sing -- and belt -- some and lip-sync others.

Tony Sheldon, who plays the man-hungry, middle-aged transgendered Bernadette, also should start composing an acceptance speech, as should Nick Adams, who plays Adam/Felicia, the youngest and most flamboyant of the three. Will Swenson (in photo) as Tick/Mitzi doesn’t have the vocal strength or energy he had in Hair, but he’s just so likable as the secretly married but estranged husband and father whose desire to meet his son prompts the journey from Sydney to remote Alice Springs on a battered old bus they name Priscilla. The folks they encounter along the way have never seen the likes of this flashy trio.

The musical had its world premiere in 2006 in Sydney, moved on to Melbourne and New Zealand, becoming the most successful Australian musical of all time. Its North American debut was in Toronto before it journeyed down to Broadway's Palace Theatre where it opened March 20. Sheldon has played Bernadette since the show’s inception and was nominated for a Best Actor in a Musical Olivier Award in London.

Bette Midler is one of the show’s Broadway producers, which is appropriate since she’s a favorite of drag queens and female impersonators.

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