Friday, March 18, 2011

theatre review, PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, Broadway, March 17, 2011

The 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was an audience favorite, telling the heartfelt story of three individuals on a bus that breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and what they do to get their journey, and their lives, back on track.   The fact that one of the individuals is a transsexual and the other two are drag queens, and where they break down is the Australian outback, only adds to the drama.   But, in the end, the people they encounter realize that it isn't what you look like on the outside, but the inside, that matters, well, at least some of them realize that!   Add to all of the drama in the story, some outrageous costumes, amazing disco songs that the drag performers lip sync to, and you have a hit movie on your hands.

The film has lovingly been turned into Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - the Broadway show that is now in previews and opens this Sunday, March 20th.   The story is basically the same as the film, with a book by Stephen Elliot, who wrote and directed the movie and many of the great disco songs that were used in the film have been kept for the show, but many others have been added as well.  This show began in Australia in 2006, and has been on a journey across the globe itself, with stops in New Zealand, London, Toronto and now Broadway.   The London production is still running.

Tony Sheldon is "Bernadette," a transvestite who has "retired" from performing and serves as the mother of the group and some of the people they encounter.  Will Swenson is "Tick" who is the catalyst for the road trip, since he has a job in Alice Springs and gets his two friends to join him on the journey- but his friends don't exactly know the very specific reason why he needs to get to that job.   Nick Adams plays "Adam" an outrageous drag queen performer who idolizes Madonna and is a bit of a man whore as well as isn't that nice to Bernadette, who he keeps reminding used to be "Ralph."

The entire production is colorful with over the top, elaborate, outrageous costumes like the one to the left - all in the style of the ones from the movie - designed by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won the Oscar for the film costumes.  I can't imagine them not winning the Tony for costumes as each one tops the previous one, ending in a finale that represents every creature from the Outback - I especially loved the Kangaroo costumes! 

The show is a little loose on the direction.  Simon Phillips stages the important book scenes front and center, but the rest of the show is pretty much all over the place.  The choreography by Ross Coleman ranges from simple and sometimes elegant "showgirl" like steps to druken drag queen ones with the ensemble seeminly always at the ready to come on for yet another group number.  However, the drag club, bar and night club scenes all require large ensembles for those parts and the show does relish in the "more is more" feeling, so after a somewhat unfocused beginning I took the journey with the rest of my bus riders and I'm sure there will be many others who have no problem getting on this fun and elaborate bus ride.

Sheldon, Swenson and Adams
I need to make a special mention about the show's title character, Priscilla.  This is a bus like none other - imaginatively theatricalized to the nth degree.   One of those great set elements that never stops surprising you in it's creativity.  Kudos to the show's set designer, Brian Thomson.

I know last week after seeing How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying I said that Daniel Radcliffe is the front runner for the Best Actor in a Musical Tony for this year, but Sheldon will definitely give him a run for the money. And, like my comment about How to..., the Priscilla cast is having so much fun on the stage that the audience can't help but join in, even after a short, rocky beginning.

There have been some grumblings about the marketing of this show.  The picture to the right shows what a lot of the posters, advertising and direct mail campaigns have been using- a picture that shows the "Divas" from the show (who serve somewhat as a mock greek chorus or narrators)- but makes no mention or shows any images of the three drag queens who the story is about.   It's also been noted that Bette Midler, who is a producer of the Broadway production, recommended various changes to the script - getting rid of a lot of the more risque lines from the previous productions.   Though I'm not sure if the reason has more to do with her comment that you don't need to be so "in your face" with the dialogue, instead just letting the heart felt story stand on it's own, or if the change has more to do with trying to make this a show for the masses that will offend the least amount of people as possible, thereby running a lot longer then something that might be deemed too offensive for the tourist crowd.   Of course, if you're a producer you would want it to run as long as possible to increase your profitablity.   And, while I haven't seen any previous productions of this show, I can say that the story comes through loud and clear -and that while maybe some of the more dirtier jokes are gone, what remains is still very much a PG-13 show with plenty of adult moments that don't shy away from the lives of the three main characters.  In fact, this show is "gayer" than La Cage Aux Folles which is playing a couple of blocks away, with several scenes including the leads and the ensemble men practically naked.  But there is also a big heart at the center of this show- about acceptance, being who you really are, and taking responsibility for your actions -all things that Bette must have realized were most important.  And, anyone who comes in thinking this show is about the three "divas" in the poster and not about three drag queens would be shocked and might leave, so I can't imagine "gaying down" the show was the intent of the marketing.  

Swenson, Sheldon and Adams glammed up!
Another comment on changes made from the previous productions: "Adam" is obsessed with Madonna in the Broadway production, but in the London and Australian productions, his fascination is with Kylie Minogue.  And while Minogue is a huge star in Australia and London, she is virtually unknown in the US, so making the switch to Madonna, and using a few of her songs in the show, makes perfect sense to me. 

Also, last night the theatre was packed and there were about 20 gay men in the two rows in front of us and there was a group of about 20 Russian hetero couples to our side and behind us.  They all laughed throughout and cheered at the end, and I'm sure will recommend this to their friends, so, hopefully Bette was right with her recommendations on the changes.

So, if you're looking for a fun night out, with some eye popping costumes, "diva" narrators who literally float on air, a big bus with some nice surprises, a catalog of great disco songs, some practically naked chorus boys and a great performance from Tony Sheldon, then Priscilla is definitely for you.

Sneak Peak at the show...
Official Website -

Amazon link for the Broadway cast recording - Priscilla: Queen of the Desert

Amazon link for the dvd of the movie - The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Amazon link for the soundtrack to the movie - The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

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