Those unprepared for a preponderance of heels, hairdos, and homo- and transsexuals are advised to stay away from Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the thrillingly overblown stage adaptation of the 1994 film currently playing on Broadway. Subtlety is not the name of the game here despite some surprisingly affecting performances, and an appropriately schmaltzy plot about overcoming obstacles seems tailor-made to appeal to the suppressed queens and their woman friends who are sure to flock to the Palace Theatre in droves.
The musical’s storyline, which aligns with the film’s rather closely, centers on a trio of queens road-tripping from the big city of Sydney, where they’ve made their homes, to the gambling town of Alice Springs, where Tick (a.k.a. “Mitzi,” played by Will Swenson) has scored them a gig through his ex-wife Marion, who owns a casino there.
Tick, eager to make a change for himself, recruits hunky Adam (a.k.a. “Felicia,” played by Nick Adams), a queen who’s made a name for himself by singing live, and transsexual ex-showgirl Bernadette, who decides to sign on for the ride in the wake of her lover Trumpet’s abrupt recent death.
Our central trio takes off in a tour bus Adam’s bought with the help of his mom’s bank account and soon they’re causing a stir all across the Outback. After a fateful stop in the not-so-receptive town of Broken Hill, where an unexpectedly rousing bar performance gives way to homophobia (and, subsequently, a beautiful rendition of “True Colors”), Tick, Adam and Felicia, soon find themselves bonding and even, in Bernadette’s case, finding new love.
The plot is jaunty for the most part, aided by the presence of an abundance of dance floor tunes. There is no original music to be found here, but the arrangements of the songs on display (orchestrated by Stephen “Spud” Murphy and Charlie Hull) are mostly inspired and well-performed by a fine-voiced cast. Tick, Adam, and Bernadette get their chance to sing in character, but they’re also supported by a trio of “Divas” (Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia, McCleskey, and Ashley Spencer), who provide most of the music for their thrilling lip-synch performances (a standard practice in the world drag performance).
Let it be known that I’m a full supporter of this new musical’s ability to shape a story around twenty-odd dance floor hits and manage to keep its soul primarily intact. Though some of the songs (“It’s Raining Men,” “Go West,” “Color My World,” MacArthur Park,” “Boogie Wonderland”) do almost nothing at all to advance the plot, they do provide moments for the full cast to show off in Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s over-the-top costumes (think peacocks, raptors, cupcakes, Marie Antoinette lookalikes, etc.).
The numbers that land best emotionally are those rooted in our protagonist’s journey. Tick, who’s failed to tell his traveling mates all of the details of his past, particularly the fact that he’s got a secret son, has a lovely moment toward the beginning of the show as he sings “I Say a Little Prayer” a la La Cage aux Folles’ “A Little More Mascara.” Adam’s “Hot Stuff” in the second act, more surprisingly, provides a thrilling representation of Adam-slash-Felicia’s oversized desires as she takes to the Outback in her full drag looking for a wild man to bring home.
Will Swenson makes an amiable leading man in the role of Tick, able to convey, alternately, the confidence of a queen and the vulnerability of a hesitant father. Nick Adams’s Adam hits all the right notes; as he takes to the stage as Felicia, he’s full of panache. It’s a thrill to watch Adams, who’s been in the chorus of a number of previous shows (La Cage aux Folles, Guys and Dolls, A Chorus Line), take center stage and finally have a chance to deliver.
The jewel in the crown here, however, is Tony Sheldon, who, as Bernadette, is the emotional core of the piece. Armed with some of the show’s best one-liners, Sheldon’s performance is full of class and humor. The character of Bernadette is as refreshing here as she was in the film – how thrilling it is to find a portrayal of a transsexual character who’s allowed to find love and who, though she’s cracking jokes, doesn’t find herself the butt of other crasser ones.
Priscilla, though it’s no work of great genius, is about as entertaining an evening as one can hope to find on Broadway at the moment. Though one wishes some of the show’s more emotional moments (particularly Bernadette’s rendition of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” at her lover Trumpet’s funeral) were directed with a bit more sensitivity, it’s unlikely that audience members geared up for an evening of fun will be overly disappointed. In the transition from film to stage, spectacle has inevitably been favored over sensitivity, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, as in the film, it’s about the thrill of the music.