Saturday, May 7, 2011

Priscilla: Queen of the Desert at the Palace Theatre

Three drag queens go on a road trip in the Australian stop me if you've already heard this one...

A brassy, bright confection of stage excess, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert invites its audience to wrap themselves in hot pink feather boas, sip cocktails from the logo-ed adult sippy cups that have become standard on Broadway and try to catch strategically launched ping bong balls.  All that and more as we are encouraged to groove under raining confetti  to an eclectic cannon of disco, power ballads and electric boo-ga-loo in a fun evening of mindless entertainment that has at its core a carefully wrapped heart of glittered gold.

Based on the popular 1994 Australian film of similar name, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert seems a natural subject for transformation to the stage.   There is an eager ensemble that is not simply pretty boys and girls that contains opportunities for everyone to have moments to shine.   There are the outrageous costumes and wigs created by the Academy Award-winning team of Tim Chappell and Lizzy Gardiner (of the famous gold American Express card dress) that become more elaborate and outrageous to the point where the audience begins to wonder what will they put on Will Swenson's head next?  The scenic design by Brian Thomson includes the challenge of the title character, Priscilla, a 6-ton bus that comes with all the bells, whistles and make-up tables that our three gals need to spend two weeks crossing the Australian Outback.  

A jukebox musical that follows in the footsteps of Rock of Ages by not focusing on the material of a single artist or musical group, the score includes such 1970's and 1980's artists as Madonna,  Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, and, thankfully, only one song from the Village People (and a clever one at that). Musical supervision by Stephen "Spud" Murphy with the tight orchestra ensemble under the baton of Jeffrey Klitz keep the pulse of the evening on a steady beat throughout the evening.

The Staging by director, Simon Phillips and choreographer, the late Ross Coleman is brisk and bright and well paced, yet briefly slows only at the moments in the show when the heart and soul of the show need to take focus from the glamour of the rest of the staging.   For despite the over-the-top drag queen numbers and highly entertaining group ensemble set pieces, at its center, beneath the bawdy humor and liberal use of adult language and situations is a very sweet story of love, tolerance and the bond of true friendship.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert is the story of Tick (Mitzi) a drag performer in Sydney who receives a request to travel to Alice Springs to meet his 6-year-old son, Benji.  Benji's mom, Marion, throws in a gig in the casino she runs as an enticement.    Tick ropes into joining him his dear friend, Bernadette, a transgendered woman who has recently lost her love and who is a throwback to the glamourous early days of drag performing.  The third member of our trio is Adam (Felicia) a brash young hot head who seems to only care about his own personal gratification and a rundown but fabulous bus to take them there and the journey through the land down under is ready to begin.

For the most part, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert is simply a shut off your brain and just enjoy it kind of show.   However, like its film predecessor there are moments when the tone turns serious as our heroines  encounter life outside the tolerant city limits.   There are moments of prejudice which could feel out of place, but don't as the book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott contains enough hints that when things turn darker it really doesn't come out of left field.

This is a show that gives each member of its ensemble a moment to shine.   Performances of note include Nathan Lee Graham as Miss Understanding, the Tina Turner emulating emcee of the Sydney nightclub, Keala Settle as Shirley, a love starved soul in a small western town and J. Elaine Marcos as Cynthia, a crass mail-order bride with a talent with ping pong balls.     C. David Johnson, as Bob, the mechanic who becomes the savior of the road trip and a gentle romance for the mourning Bernadette gives a warm, heart-felt performance.

In the film, our trio of performers were talented lip-syncers.   To capture that flavor we have the three Divas, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey and Ashley Spencer who provide soulful accompaniment to the evening and provide the voices when lip-syncing is called for in the show.   They are very brave women for wearing neck-killing sky-high hair and for being willing to be flown at great heights around the stage.

As Tick, the conflicted father and leader of our trio, Will Swenson gives a well-rounded performance going equally tender and outrageous as needed.   As the bratty Adam, Nick Adams is a triple threat.  He's gorgeous, he's a talented singer and incredible dancer.   Just want to go on record here that he's so good, The Thespian officially hates him out of sheer jealousy (dang him and being able to bounce his splits).    The true soul of the musical is Tony Sheldon's Bernadette, for which he has deservedly received a Tony nomination.   Mr. Sheldon has played the role since its beginnings in Australia and he simply embodies Bernadette.   Tough as nails when the character needs to be, Bernadette is a mother-hen, a mournful lover, a best friend and more importantly a real lady.   It's a mesmerizing performance.

The show is not high art and should be taken as what it is, a fun musical with a message of tolerance and acceptance.   That said, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert contains very adult humor and language including the painting of profanity and homophobic slurs on stage at a critical moment in the show.   This is not a show for children.  Mature teenagers should be able to appreciate the show and enjoy it.

Priscilla: Queen of the Desert is playing at the Palace Theatre on Broadway.   For tickets and other performance information please visit


  1. I have seen it twice in London. I am still bothered that the US producers felt they needed to "tone it down" for the American audiences, and thus restaged the opening number, among others. But what a hoot. Did they have the plastic light martini glasses with frozen beverages for the interval that we get on this side of the pond?

  2. I'd be curious to see the London version of the script and see just what was toned down. No, there weren't any lit martini glasses, what Broadway has are glorified sippy cups. Most of the theaters have generic ones, but Priscilla had their logo on them. They are travel mug sized for soda and smaller for alcoholic beverages. They do sell the pink boas in the lobby and if you don't catch a ping pong ball, you can buy those as well.

  3. Priscilla: Queen of the Desert won Best Costume Design of a Musical for Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner at the 2011 Tony Awards on June 12, 2011. They won the same award for the original Priscilla: Queen of the Desert film.