Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 20, 2011
Priscilla - Queen of the Desert Book by Stephan Elliott & Allan Scott. Based on the Latent Image/Specific Films Motion Picture Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. Director Simon Phillips. Choreographer Ross Coleman. Music Supervision & Arrangements Stephen “Spud” Murphy. Production Supervised by Jerry Mitchell. Bus Concept & Production Designer Brian Thomson. Costume Design Tim Chappel & Lizzy Gardiner. Lighting Design Nick Schlieper. Sound Design Jonathan Deans & Peter Fitzgerald. Orchestrations Stephen “Spud” Murphy & Charlie Hull. Musical Coordinator John Miller. Music Director Jeffrey Klitz. Developed for the stage by Simon Phillips. Cast: Will Swenson, Tony Shedon, Nick Adams, C. David Johnson, with James Brown III, Nathan Lee Graham, J. Elaine Marcos, Mike McGowan, Jessica Phillips, Steve Schepis, Keala Settle, and Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, Ashley Spencer, Thom Allison, Kyle Brown, Joshua Buscher, Gavin Lodge, Luke Mannikus, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Jeff Metzler, Eric Sciotto, Amaker Smith, Esther Stilwell, Bryan West, Tad Wilson, Ashton Woerz.
That would be emotional color, and it’s a crushing loss not just because it’s what musicals do (or are supposed to do) best, but because it used to be crucial. The movie on which this show is based, Stephan Elliott’s 1994 Australian flick The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, may only tell the story of two drag queens and a transsexual traveling by bus — that’s Priscilla — from Sydney to remote Alice Springs to perform a show at a resort. But along the way, much of significance happens: Drag queen Tick learns to embrace — and love — the young son he’d left behind years earlier, as transsexual Bernadette learns to feel again after the death of her lover, and as the flamboyant third wheel Adam comes to see that the world can be more than his own private joke. The movie works, and even moves, because writer-director Elliott and his superb cast (led by Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp) treated the central characters and their literal and emotional journeys with great legitimacy and even taste.
In writing the book of the musical version with Allan Scott, however, Elliott scraps every nuance of plot and feeling in favor of “’feel-good’ theatricality” (complete with double scare quotes) that is everything but real. Stir in too-glitzy-for-Vegas direction by Simon Phillips; disco-on-acid choreography by Ross Coleman; those eye-poking designs by Brian Thomson (set, and “bus concept” for the omnipresent Priscilla herself), Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (costumes), and Nick Schlieper (lights); and a swath of performances that, with but one exception, try to scale the Empire State Building in sequins, and you’ve got a perfect storm of camp where before there were never even rain clouds.
The score, to the extent the word applies in the case of a jukebox musical such as this one, only contributes to the jarring atmosphere by attempting song matching in a proto–Mamma Mia! way. Tick (Will Swenson), after first speaking to his distant wife, Marion (Jessica Phillips), and his son, Benji (Luke Mannikus and Ashton Woerz alternate in the role), croons Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Say a Little Prayer” with so little irony it comes across as full-on parody. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is the “dirge” sung by a parade of cross-dressers at the funeral of the lover of transsexual Bernadette (Tony Sheldon). “I Love the Nightlife” pops up in a ramshackle town that has none at all to speak of. When Priscilla breaks down in the desert, how does the trio find the strength to make it through the night? By singing “I Will Survive,” naturally.
But so what? Applying a thick coat of shellac to Tick and sapping Adam of his inner pain cuts the poignancy from their stories. And, by extension, gives the actors nothing to play: Swenson and Adams sing expertly, but convince as neither drag queens or basic human beings. The role of Bob, the handyman who joins the trio on their trek and unwittingly falls for Bernadette, is reduced to essentially a bit, which denudes her story of its heart-swelling impact. (At least C. David Johnson plays him capably.) And by the time the third or fourth inch-deep fantasy number erupts in the outback, even if it has a marginally valid plot reason (painting Priscilla pink in “Color My World”), it’s challenging to maintain interest in their shallow outlandishness.
The same would be true of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert overall if not for Sheldon, who provides exactly the persona the rest of the show desperately requires. Adding on not a trace of falseness other than what’s demanded by the book, the Australian actor (who’s apparently been with the show since its inception in 2006) plays Bernadette with the kind of intensity and conviction with which Brian Bedford is currently approaching Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. He offers no hint whatsoever that Bernadette is anything less than an aggrieved woman who’s forgotten how to feel, and who doesn’t know how much she needs to blossom again.
Bernadette conducts her life with the utmost dignity and class, keeping the younger and more volatile men in line, and reminding them — throughout, but particularly when they’re the victims of hate crimes — that they’re better than the world that would keep them down. And so resolute is Sheldon in reinforcing this message that you’re forced to consider its myriad implications as well. You’re also reminded that underneath any kind of artifice a person may erect to guard against the world, whether grief, abuse, or women’s clothing, a true human being is always beneath, deserving as much respect as we can muster.
The good news, then, is that there is some point to this Priscilla, Queen of the Desert after all. Alas, the overarching moral of the rest of the musical can be summed up in one of Adam’s signature performances: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” As do audiences, of course. But this show’s determination to ensure that at any cost only reinforces the decades-old axiom that fun, bereft of reality, is at best a black-and-white pursuit.