Review: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

I am going to go way out on limb here: I think Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is kinda deep. Oh, not too deep, it has too much – well, respect for the gaudy (but also rather grand) tradition of drag entertaining to get bogged down in wet blanket high seriousness. But it is seriously, almost religiously devoted to fun, deep fun that dares to go to the loud and garishly Dionysian heart of theater, and signal from those hot, energetic, brightly multicolored flames that hope, joy, sex and delight are deep eternal springs beyond rational understanding that can never be quenched. The Greek tragedy The Bacchae showed us what terrible things happens when we resist this joy – the Australian disco musical comedy Priscilla shows what happens when we give over to it totally.

In case you haven’t guessed, I really liked Priscilla.

As I often say when I really like something, it isn’t perfect. That kind of dizzying high energy is impossible to sustain over the course of any show, and sometimes when things slow it’s more of a genuine lull than a welcome respite. Also, there are moments that are rushed or not fully realized, but these seem to come from a generous, genial sensibility that keeps something that is lovely and nearly works, rather than ditching it until it is perfect.

In case you missed your Gay 101 class the day they showed the film version of Priscilla, the story follows a trio of drag queens – well, two drag queens and one tranny – who hop on a battered old bus (to whom they give the titular sobriquet) to get to a gig in a desert casino – unexpectedly finding love, friendship and, yes, lots of fun in the Australian outback.

The strong, smart book – filled with quips both familiar and minty fresh – byPriscilla filmmaker Stephan Elliott and one Allan Scott is in general brisk and propulsive, making virtuosic, gleeful jumps between unabashedly sentimental, even cutesy storytelling and ecstatic spectacle. It wisely avoids unnecessary complexity, when what this story really requires is the bracing emotional directness of the good pop music that populates its eclectic score. Speaking of that score, I for one love putting money in great jukeboxes, and this is the first “jukebox” musically I’ve seen that really takes the deliciously weird, surreal pleasures of an actual jukebox into account.

The show reflects a refreshingly un-ironic love of what Noel Coward playfully called “cheap music” (a love I happen to un-ironically share) – this stuff is full of unfiltered, even powerful happiness and ache, two things that were in short supply on Broadway until Priscilla came along. Director Simon Phillips and his creative team take each song more or less at its word, be it “I Say A Little Prayer” with Hal David’s heartfelt yet sophisticated lyrics (which fits much better here than it did shoehorned into Promises, Promises), or the deeply odd “MacArthur Park”. Especially inspired is the choreography of Ross Coleman and Jerry Mitchell, which cleverly plays into the wonderfully witty, complex and over the top costumes of Oscar winners Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner.

This isn’t by any means a polite show. It is “hot” in the best sense of the word, mining for the real mystic hard sparkle behind disco balls and glitter, forsaking the everyday when it can have the mythic instead. This is reflected in its terrifically well-cast leads.

Tony Sheldon, who has been with the show as the tranny Bernadette since its Australian genesis years ago, finds layers of genuine womanliness that the film’s Terence Stamp only vaguely gestured towards. Nick “Body” Adams brings to bitchy Felicia every bit of sex and venom that Guy Pearce had in the film and then some, adding his own brand of Broadway razzle-dazzle and winning girlish charm to the mix. Will Swenson makes the role of Mitzi almost entirely his own, layering deep reserves of power and grace behind a surface of pure generosity. He forsakes the creamy hippie rock vocalizing he gave us in Hair for a simpler singing style that finds new shades in the landscape between masculinity and femininity, further staking his claim to being the 21st Century Pagan Prince of Broadway.

This is easily the gayest big budget musical that Broadway has ever given us, and I am truly touched at the gift. Go! It’s simply the biggest gay fun there is!

For tickets, click here. Now!

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