Entertainment :: Theatre

Priscilla Queen of the Desert

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Sunday Mar 27, 2011
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Nick Adams: dig those gams!
Nick Adams: dig those gams!   (Source:Joan Marcus)

After seeing Priscilla Queen of the Desert, I tried to remind myself that only a few decades ago, gay-themed plays were verboten on Broadway. Back in the day, Mae West couldn’t even bring her play The Drag into the five boroughs.

Dan Savage is right. Things do get better. From Torch Song Trilogy on, Broadway has become more and more accepting of what can only be termed the gay sensibility -- that is, bitchy, biting, nasty humor consisting of one-off insults; dance music played at a Circuit party-volume; drag, the more far-fetched and elaborate the better; a gay-rights message; and a constant stream of double entendres about rear entry, giving head and rimming.

I thought Xanadu had pretty much gone as far as camp could go, but forget it: Priscilla makes that little show -- not to mention La Cage -- look like a Hemingway adaptation.

This musical, already a proven hit in Sydney and London’s West End, is based on the much-beloved 1994 road-trip film about a spoiled young Madonna-obsessed drag queen (Felicia); a middle-aged once-married drag performer (Tick)); and an aging transsexual (Bernadette). But (like Xanadu), the show’s creators took the already-outrageous film and somehow increased its camp quotient somewhere into the orbit.

As in the film, Tick gets a call from his wife asking him to visit their son, who is asking to see his dad. As an incentive, she offers him a gig at her casino at Alice Springs, smack dab in the middle of the Australian continent. Tick enlists the other two, they buy a rundown bus, and -- bingo! -- the classic road story.

What made the film so popular was that, when it came out, it was something entirely new. There had been films about drag queens, but never one where they were so in your face. And the frocks brought the sensibility of gay underground clubs, off-off Broadway shows like When Pigs Fly and Fire Island to the mainstream (the film walked away with the Best Costume Oscar).

By now, we’ve become pretty accustomed to drag that outdoes the Ziegfeld Follies in plumed headdresses and Marie Antoinette gowns. That didn’t stop Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who might as well start making room on their bookcases for that Costume Design Tony. Armed with ostrich feathers, sequins, tulle, and anything else they can find, these two create outfits that are nearly hallucinogenic in their effect. (And let me say a word here for the show’s dressers, unsung heroes who do miracles, especially in the Act Two closer.)

Each of the three principal characters brings his own version of female impersonation to his role. Tony Sheldon provides gravitas and a Lauren Bacall bass-alto. Every line that drops from his mouth hits like a land mine. (He’d better get ready for a Tony, too.)

My personal favorite was Nick Adams, a Broadway gypsy getting his big break. Some of the reviewers have criticized Adams’ ultra-buff physique as inappropriate, but they don’t understand that gym-built perfection is also a form of drag. You see it all over the place at Fire Island’s annual Invasion.

What saves Adams from coming off like a Chelsea boy slumming in the part is his pleasantly goofy (but handsome!) face, which offsets the body. He has crack comic timing, as well as amazing physical agility. Keep an eye on this guy.

The weak link here is Will Swenson, who underplays his role -- although, in his favor, a little underplaying isn’t such a bad thing amidst the incessant goings-on. He also has been given a lousy version of Cindy Lauper’s ineffable ballad "True Colors"; blame here must go to the orchestrators.

Oh, yes, about the songs. This is, after all, a musical, and there must be music. Here, it’s vintage disco, much of it sung (for no discernible reason) by three women. Called "the Divas," they descend from the sky and give us mostly faithful recreations of classics like "It’s Raining Men" and "I Will Survive."

The three principals get their share of the mike, and there’s even a song -- "Thank God I’m a Country Boy" -- for the rednecks of Coober Pedy, the extremely isolated town where Felicia goes one high-heeled step too far.

Although I adore this music, I couldn’t help but wonder why the director didn’t simply play the original record and have the principals lip synch (which they do to a very few songs, including "Sempre Libera," from the opera La Traviata). Yes, it’s Broadway, so there has to be live music. But I’m not sure a few original tunes wouldn’t have added another dimension to the score. (I also would have loved a full-out rendition of CeCe Penniston’s "Finally," which provides the film’s climax, only sampled here.)

That said, the three divas bring their own personality the song: one is Martha Wash-style gospel belting; another, Motown mellow; and the third Cindi Lauper chipper. They’re a nice combination, even if I never could figure out why they were on stage.

The biggest problem with Priscilla, however, is the sheer muchness of the production. I was reminded of another recent Broadway musical adaptation of a campy foreign film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. As in that show, more is more.

It’s not enough that the three queens paint their bus after some rednecks have written a homophobic slur on it. No, there has to be a chorus of paintbrushes. When someone sings "MacArthur Park," there is a bouncing row of cakes, not quite melting in the rain.

There are also some weak transitions between scenes. And I would have liked to have seen some of the money spent on those incredible costumes go toward the scenery, which is pretty nonexistent. Still, the overall production is pretty cool. And forget Spiderman: I want to know who did the special effect that recreated the most infamous scene from the film, involving a woman and ping-pong balls?

Even if I felt nearly as exhausted as the hard-working cast when I walked out of the Palace (where Liza Minelli recently played her one-woman show; how gay is that?), I was also exhilarated.

Bernadette at one point says that Sydney -- the proverbial Big City -- is the only place where "people like us can feel safe." Do they put up walls to keep us in, or the suburbanites out?

In an age when more and more of us are opting for marriage, kids, the picket fence, the whole American Dream ball of wax, it’s nice to be reminded that no matter how much like everyone else we may become -- or may want to become -- there will always be an inner queen wailing silently, arms flailing, every time we hear Donna Summer or Gloria Gaynor belting out a melody.

Priscilla doesn’t give us a gay anthem, like "I Am What I Am" from La Cage. But it does something equally important. It tells us that our loud-mouthed, bewigged, overdressed drag queens remain at the vanguard of our culture.

So here’s to Priscilla! You go, girl! And you go, too. Or hand in your gay card.

Open-ended run
The Palace Theater
1564 Broadway, between 46th & 47th Streets (across from Duffy Square)
Tickets: 877-250-2929; or go to Ticketmaster.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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