In the transition from screen to stage, and then from West End stage to Broadway stage, Priscilla has lost most of that sensitivity while receiving an additional camp injection of such purity and dosage it could nearly resuscitate the Continental Baths. (It’s surely no coincidence that first among the 22 listed producers is the Divine Miss Midler.)
What’s playing at the Palace is a high-volume, high-energy, never-let-up disco-drag spectacular with a pulsing soundtrack full of Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and Madonna. Its (not particularly complex) source material has been dumbed down into a simple jukebox musical–and it’s perhaps the best jukebox musical I’ve seen.
Stephan Elliott, who wrote and directed the film, and Allan Scott wrote the script, which wisely wastes little time on dialogue and book scenes–they seem to stop this show cold–and instead moves briskly from one-liner to production number. Director Simon Phillips, an Australian who’s directed the play since its first production, in Sydney, puts on a perfect spectacle, lush and funny. (The veteran Broadway choreographer Jerry Mitchell is listed as “production supervisor.”)
The cast–led by Will Swenson, Nick Adams and the Australian Tony Sheldon–is energetic, and hugely entertaining. And the choreography, by Ross Coleman, an Australian who died two years ago, is a delight: sexy, stylized and knowingly silly drag moves writ large.
But most wonderful here are the production design by Brian Thomson and the marvelous costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. Mr. Adams’ big number–“Sempre Libre,” from La Traviata–is sung from an enormous closed-toe pump extended over the audience from atop a bus. (On today’s Broadway, one is tempted to call such staging simple.) There are dancing paintbrushes in “Color My World,” silvery cowboy ensembles for “Go West” and a hilariously exuberant funeral scene set to “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” in which the dancing mourners wear hats topped variously with a cross, a crown, a menorah and a stiletto heel.
This Priscilla still follows that same mismatched gaggle of Sydney gays: nice-guy Tick (Hair‘s Mr. Swenson, who delivers a “MacArthur Park” with more enthusiasm than even Ms. Summer ever did); young, pretty and selfish Adam (Mr. Adams, who shows off his torso as much as I would if I’d never eaten a carbohydrate); and an older, lonely, raspily elegant transsexual called Bernadette (Mr. Sheldon, consistently off-key but otherwise excellent in the only role with any emotional depth), who brings to mind Lauren Bacall but less mannish.
They’re traveling–by means of a Queer Eye‘d old motorcoach, the eponymous Priscilla–to middle-of-nowhere Alice Springs, where Tick’s wife (when and how they married, and why they never divorced, is not explained) books acts at a casino, and his son, whom he has never seen, wants to meet him. Ultimately, Tick and Benji connect (to “Always on My Mind”), Bernadette finds love, Adam stops being an ass and the Middle American-style Middle Australians love the drag show (to “We Belong”).
The cowriter Mr. Scott suggested in a New York Times article that grown men–heterosexual men!–have been known to tear up at that father-and-son reunion, which, if true, could only be because a bit of glitter got stuck someplace uncomfortable. But so what if there’s little real emotion here? With Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical, like on Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Bus, the journey is what matters, and it’s a blast.