Review: PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT Pre-Broadway try-out
If you are going to have candy, make it the very best candy you can make using only the finest ingredients. That's pretty much what the producers of the Broadway-bound musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert have done. Not content to replicate a show that has already proven to be a big hit in both Sydney and in London where it continues to play, the creators have given the show a complete makeover. The result is slick entertainment that is a ridiculous amount of fun.
The story, adapted from the 1994 film tells of two drag queens, Tick and Adam and an aging transsexual, Bernadette. The three embark on a road trip across Australia to perform at a casino owned by Tick's ex-wife. What Tick doesn't tell his companions is that the reason for this excursion is to allow him to get to know his young son.
This need for love and connection gives the stage musical not only a focused through line but also its considerable heart. These characters don't just exist to trade putdowns. They share a collective loneliness, a search for love in an at times cold and unfriendly world.
Midway through the first act, after having won over a wary crowd at an outback bar, they return to some nasty homophobic graffiti scrawled along the side of their bus. They are almost too shocked and hurt for words, but they rally around each other, give the bus a new coat of paint (psychedelic pink, appropriately) and forge ahead.
The authors are not being particularly subtle here. Priscilla is a plea for tolerance, pure and simple, and like most fairy tales it's methods are at times heavy handed, but that in no way interferes with the basic storytelling.
Director Simon Phillips keeps the action moving at a brisk, almost frantic pace. Sometimes it is a little too brisk. An early scene set at a funeral for Bernadette's recently deceased partner favours flashy entertainment instead of letting some genuine emotion from the bereaved carry the moment. Since this event leads to her decision to join the expedition, it is one area the creators may want to revisit before the show moves to Broadway.
This is, however, a very minor quibble for the show, as it now stands, is enormously entertaining thanks in no small part to the three leads. First and foremost Tony Sheldon recreates his star performance as Bernadette. Sheldon first played the role in the original 2006 Australian production and the years have only added more depth to a particularly poignant performance.
Will Swenson delivers an equally nuanced performance as Tick/Mitzi, the performer worried about how his son will react when he finds out about his father's true occupation. Swenson communicates volumes with his eyes in just one fleeting look, yet a moment later he is singing and dancing in the best show biz tradition: Never let the audience see your private pain.
Nick Adams plays the youngest and flightiest of the trio. Adam/Felicia is at times particularly nasty, demonstrating a fear of growing older. For now he has a young athletic body and can use it effectively in the more demanding choreography. Naturally he saves his more vicious comments for Bernadette, but when he needs some genuine compassion, it is Bernadette who provides it.
In one of the musical's strangest moments Felicia is revealed performing an aria from La Traviata. Why is she suddenly singing opera? The character has never expressed any interest in opera or even traditional musical theatre. In fact, his one big obsession is with Madonna. This is one of the changes made for this North American production and allows the interpolation of several of her hits including "Material Girl", "Like a Virgin" and "Like a Prayer."
The show has also gained a rousing new opening number, "It's Raining Men" while six songs from the original Australian production have been dropped. Certain book changes have also focused the story better so that the father-son relationship is established near the beginning and provides a stronger structure for the show.
Is it strong enough to support 24 numbers? While most have a tangential tie to the plot, they generally do not advance the story or develop the characters. They are there to entertain, and when they are presented with such verve and imagination it would be hard to choose one or two to eliminate.
Ross Coleman's endlessly inventive choreography imbues the production with enough razzle dazzle for ten musicals. The routines are further enhanced by the spectacular costume designs by Tim Chappell and Lizzy Gardiner. This is no mere parade of spectacular dresses. The finale alone brings in more animals that the opening procession at The Lion King.
The technical aspects are handled with aplomb although the opening night audience got a few added laughs when one riser failed to return to the stage properly causing a momentary stop in what was an otherwise smooth performance. C.David Johnson as the bus mechanic Bob adlibbed beautifully around The Situation.
At this point the show seems ready for Broadway. Certainly it could use some careful polishing and maybe a bit of judicious cutting, but in general the production gives every indication that it will be big hit when it arrives at New York's Palace Theatre next March.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert continues at the Princess of Wales Theatre until January 2, 2011 after which it will move to New York to begin previews February 28 and open March 20. For tickets to this exclusive Toronto engagement visit www.mirvish.com or call Ticketking at 416-872-1212.