I went into Priscilla Queen of the Desert with the highest of hopes that it would be a non-stop thrill ride of color, spectacular sets, costumes and exciting dancing. About 2 minutes into I began to get that sinking feeling that this was not going to be the great musical good time of the season. Don't get me wrong. I knew enough to hope this would be Mamma Mia style good times, not next to normal, and not even somewhere in between, like say, Billy Elliot. You see, the problem with Priscilla is that if the scale of intensity was a low of 1 and a high of 10, it starts out at about a 12 and goes higher from there. What's wrong with that, you ask? Well, when you start out that high, it gets nearly impossible to build upon, and quite frankly, it is exhausting.
Another problem is that with so much going on - between director Simon Phillips' frantic staging and Ross Coleman's equally frenzied choreography - including a lot of props and costume changes as part of the dance - you miss some of the central action. About the only reason Will Swenson's entrance is even noticed - he walks into the dance number of all things - is because he is dressed in a non-rainbow color, and because he gets in the way. If you listen closely, you hear snippets of dialogue (during the song and dance) along the lines of "you're late, you washed up old drag queen," etc. The pretty boys aren't shoving him out of the way because he's walking through their number. They are man-handling him (get it?) because they really don't like him. His act is stale - think Marilyn Monroe meets Avenue Q - and he really needs to get the hell out of Sydney (Australia, mate). You kind of get that they're from Down Under from Swenson's accent, but the supporting cast up to this point is more uneven with their speech patterns, and I'm thinking I'm back at La Cage aux Folles with a bigger budget. In the midst of the noise, Will, um, I mean Tick makes a phone call to a friend to bemoan his lot in life, only to discover that the friend, a transgendered woman named Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) is worse off. Seems her lover, Trumpet (I will not even try to explain the reason for this name; it is tasteless and unfunny) has died and she is about to attend his funeral. Of course, this is the world of drag queens, so the occasion calls for a huge production number to "Don't Leave Me This Way." Drag queens in mourning are both wildly funny and shockingly disturbing, and cheap sight gags involving the humping of a casket and ass-less chaps and black umbrellas are the icing on this overbaked cake. It was right around here that I really almost checked out, arms folded and eyes a-rolling.
But then the actual story got going, including the entrance of Adam/Felicia, aka Nick Adams, whose bright eyes, wide smile (and amazing body) are all eclipsed by his youthful abandon, absurd cattiness and infuriating naivete that includes an impetuous lack of consideration for others' feelings. He comes on like a hurricane of Skittles, and we are instantly smitten. And all of a sudden there's Tick/Mitzi (Will Swenson) alive and alert and a tower of female strength, Bernadette (Tony Sheldon). And all of a sudden there are three characters to care about, a thin storyline that holds the show together with heart, and gigantic set piece, a bus, named Priscilla. And then, out of the blue, one fantasy sequence after another gets funnier and funnier, more clever than the last, and each more cleverly staged. I am now in love with all three, and am practically wriggling in my seat with anticipation as to what will happen next (even though you already know it will end in a predictably pat ending, you don't care, I didn't anyway, because it is the journey here that is interesting).
Some two dozen hits from the 60's through the 90's, ranging from Bacharach and David (please no more musicals with "I Say a Little Prayer" after this season, OK?) to Madonna to M (remember that techno-ditty "Pop Muzic"? After you see this show, I guarantee you will never forget it) to Donna Summer (just thinking of the song "Hot Stuff" now riles me up in anger), and a dazzling production number based on the lyrics to "MacArthur Park." Believe it or not, this may just be the pinnacle of jukebox musicals. The variety of sources make it more surprising and with more possibility than the limits of using one group's song catalogue. And not once - even when it seems like it comes out of nowhere like "MacArthur Park" - does a song feel shoehorned in. You never groan at a song choice for its obviousness, and they have chosen some real doozies. Part of this might have to do with how some songs are rearranged (orchestrations by Stephen "Spud" Murphy and Charlie Hill). They are not always like you hear them on the radio, and take on a life of their own in the context of the show - witness "I Love the Night Life" as a torch song/country ballad, or "We Belong" as an anthem of acceptance.
After those first several off-putting minutes, Simon Phillips' staging becomes more thoughtful and creative, which is no small feat considering that much has to do with being confined to a bus, and finding realistic reasons to get on and off of it. To his credit, Phillips really knows how to counterpoint all of the fabulousness with quiet, meaningful moments - there were four times during the show where I wiped away tears and twice where my stomach was in angry knots. And more to his credit, he gets us to feel deeply, then moves us right back into party mode. Clearly, his objective is to entertain, make us feel, and then entertain us some more. Similarly, Ross Coleman's choreography (supervised by Jerry Mitchell, following Mr. Coleman's untimely passing) is frenetic much of the time - in fact, it comes across as rather busy, fussy and repetitive, not unlike the dance moves at any number of gay clubs in big cities - and actually kind of dull by the 5th production number in a row. But then, he pulls out something small, slower paced and elegant, and you find yourself loving the dancing all over again.
The Divas (top); Mitzi, Bernadette and Felicia (center);
James Brown III and Bob - C. David Johnson (front, center)
And all of this is wrapped up in a non-stop, moving set, designed by Brian Thompson. The bus spins (a lot), the floor moves, there are more sparkly curtains here than in all of Liberace's mansion, and everything that isn't nailed down is hot pink. Is there such a thing as "too gay"? Thompson's set, Nick Schlieper's equally busy, but surprisingly unimaginative lighting, and Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner's brilliant, funny and endlessly inventive costume designs (they won an Oscar for their work on the film version) would all point to "yes, there is such a thing as 'too gay'", if it weren't for the fact that they are so damned fun to look at. The signature flip flop dress is here, and there are some crazy spandex outfits topped with topiary style headdresses and bottomed with bizarre square bouncy feet. And some very special kudos must go to Cassie Hanlon's make up design, which includes peel on/peel off make up "masks," so that in seconds Tick and Adam can turn into Mitzi and Felicia right before our eyes.
Felicia and Priscilla
To be honest, the spectacle a lot of times obliterates the story and the characters, but the whole thing is so much fun you hardly notice. There are the three "divas" who descend from the heavens to sing, diva-like, naturally. Sometimes they (Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey and Ellyn Marie Marsh) sing as commentary to the action, sometimes they provide the singing voices for the lip-syncing drag queens, and other times they just add to the fun. Aside from their singing, they provide no discernible aid to the plot, are never explained or, for that matter, addressed by the cast (save for a duet of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" - go figure - between the Divas and Adam). Some nice one scene characters add some depth to the book scenes, including Nathan Lee Graham as Miss Understanding, a drag queen hostess/Tina Turner impersonator, James Brown III as a faux aboriginal tour guide, and Steve Schepis as Young Bernadette, who is all glamour and style and proving why old school is sometimes the better education. And the scene stealer of the year has to be J. Elaine Marcos who plays the mail order bride of a bus mechanic. She is the one who does a number to the song "Pop Muzic" and nearly stops the show. She does a "trick" with ping pong balls that cannot be described here without my locking the review from the view of anyone under 18. It is HILARIOUS.
Luke Mannikus and Jessica Phillips
Much of the emotional ground work comes from Esther Stilwell (in for Keala Settle) as mullet wearing, bar owner and down on her luck in love, Shirley, who milks every possible laugh and a nice dose of empathy from "I Love the Nightlife (I Love to Boogie)," and Jessica Phillips as Marion, Tick's wife and the mother of their child, who Tick has never met. She plays the role with such sincerity that you honestly believe that she accepts her husband's gay life and has really raised their son without prejudice. (And I say "believe"because her sincerity is played so for real.) But the real tug-at-your-heart stuff comes from the utterly adorable and charming Luke Mannikus who you'd swear was really from Australia, so superb is his accent. His duet with Swenson - clearly as smitten with the kid as the audience is - will bring even the coldest-hearted to tears. Best of all, the boy is as genuine as they come; there is not a trace of "cute kid actor" in him. Perhaps the most interesting character, though is the bus mechanic, Bob, played with warmth and manly sweetness by C. David Johnson. He is drawn to Bernadette because of a fond memory from the past, and is smitten enough with her to join the bus trip and leave his annoying wife behind. Does he know Bernadette is transgendered? Does he he know that when he first fell for her years ago, she was really a man? And do they really end up together? It is nice that the show brings it up and leaves that for the audience to answer.
Finally, and of course, it goes without saying, that if we don't give a hang about the three main characters, Tick/Mitzi (Swenson), Adam/Felicia (Adams) and Bernadette (Sheldon), Priscilla would be a pointless, overblown drag show. Nick Adams certainly has ascended to the ranks of leading man quickly, and this role suits him perfectly. His impossibly muscular body, including a much featured bare rear end, is stunning to look at, and yet still manages to look totally femme in his drag costumes (this was NOT the case when he was in La Cage). He can sing like a bird, and is a fantastic dancer. I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by his acting - he displays quite a range. My fear is that, as he gets used to it and after a few months of adding little bits, though, he might go too far, and that will ruin it. He is great as is. (I have that exact fear for the entire show.) Will Swenson has the most accessible role, with the most obvious range of emotions. It is fun to watch him let himself go and enjoy his big drag numbers - he's a great dancer. And it is really nice to see him work through his character's biggest fears: that he won't be able to keep his friends together, and worst of all, that his son, once they meet, will want nothing to do with him. It is the brief glimpses of this man that makes Swenson's performance so terrific, so real. And then there is Tony Sheldon, who has played Bernadette in every production of this show since its inception. You would never know he's played the role over 1,000 times. It is as fresh and new feeling as his co-stars' roles. Mr. Sheldon wears Bernadette like a lovely flowing dress. He is, for all intents and purposes, a woman. Not a man playing a woman, not even a man playing a transgendered person. If it weren't for a couple of cheesy laughs he's been directed to get by lowering his voice, you would completely believe that Bernadette is a woman now. But besides believability, Mr. Sheldon also brings to the role a depth of feeling, nuance and charisma that draws you naturally to this woman whose life has been hard fought and beautifully won.
Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon and Nick Adams
As piled on as the spectacle is, ultimately Priscilla works because of its quieter moments. Not bad for a show whose main characters are inherently larger than life and a bus. I guess that's what really struck me about the show. The bus is amazing. The costumes are amazing. And all 20 production numbers are amazing. And yet, I left the show wanting to spend just a little more time with Priscilla and her family. How many times can you say that about a show that you started out not liking that much?
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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