Swenson, Sheldon and Adams in Priscilla (photo by Joan Marcus)
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert—the Musical
Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Directed by Simon Phillips
Starring Tony Sheldon, Will Swenson, Nick Adams
Previews began February 28, 2011
Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway @ West 47th Street
A kitschy Vegas-style variety show masquerading as a Broadway musical, Priscilla Queen of the Desert—the Musical combines glitzy costumes, dance hit singalongs and an old-fashioned, sentimental story to endear itself to every single person in the audience.
Based on the Australian cult movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the musical follows three drag queens on a bus trip through the outback from Sydney to Alice Springs to perform in a new show. Along the way, of course, they find laughter, tears, friendship and love. The movie won an Oscar for its gaudy costume design, and the musical will certainly follow suit come awards time, with Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s dazzlingly colorful gowns and other outrageously inspired ensembles.
Not a jukebox musical—since many of the ‘70s and ‘80s dance and pop hits are lip-synched by our protagonists as other singers perform them onstage—Priscilla is actually Broadway’s first karaoke musical. The obvious dance classics are heard, from “I Will Survive” and “Finally” to snippets of “Celebration” (apparently, Aussies don’t go for “We Are Family,” which is conspicuously missing). Personally, I don’t need to hear so many Madonna songs, but in this context, they obviously fit.
The musical has less a coherent storyline than several scenes strung together to culminate in show-stopping production numbers, the most memorably original being one that nods to opera queens in the audience: “Sempre Libre,” sung by Maria Callas, naturally.
Despite its groaning double entendres and winking campiness—and a draggy second act that nearly derails the show—Priscilla is so good-natured it becomes irresistible if never less than ridiculous. The cast, which is having more fun than the audience, is headed by the gifted Will Swenson, unrecognizable as the head hippie in the Hair revival; Tony Sheldon, putting a Dame Edna-like stamp on the aging, still screaming queen; and Nick Adams, basically playing a variation of his role in the La Cage aux Folles revival.
Simon Phillips’ clever direction, Ross Coleman’s racy choreography and Brian Thomson’s outlandish set design contribute to the innocuous fun, although Priscilla is ultimately more mirage than oasis.