Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical: Theater Review

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical Still - H 2013
Joan Marcus
Splashy, strenuously affirming adaptation of the hit movie about two drag queens and a transsexual on an Aussie road trip ultimately proves fun – notwithstanding its eagerness to please.

The 1994 movie turned Broadway play about a gender-bending Aussie road trip comes to the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

The insinuating art of cross-dressing performance goes maniacally mainstream in this theatrical adaptation of the 1994 movie (written and directed by Stephan Elliott and starring Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce), now in its national tour at the Pantages in Hollywood after nearly 550 performances on Broadway.

Where the film had emphasized gently outlandish comedy and reservoirs of vulnerability, live on stage it exponentially ups the quotient of flamboyant spectacle and boisterous zingers, rowdily roughing up the audience in the cause of tolerance. It’s obscure what meaningful significance there may be to effect the substitution of negative stereotypes by positive ones, though this cold, cold heart did eventually thaw sympathetically from the sheer onslaught of unstinting determination to entertain. There are assuredly worse sins in the popular culture.

Aging drag performer Tick (Wade McCollum), aka Mitzi, receives an invitation from his most sympathetic (and otherwise inexplicable) wife to Alice Springs in the heartland of the bush to perform at her casino in order finally to meet his young son who is of an age now to need his reluctant, emotionally uncertain, father.

He enlists Adam (Bryan West), aka Felicia, an irrepressibly irresponsible, Madonna-admiring youth and the aging Bernadette (Scott Willis), a former headlining lip-syncher from the classier days of gestural subtlety. (For those not in the know, the titular Priscilla is the bus they acquire for the journey, which after being graffitied with a slur acquires a coat of shocking pink.)

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The songs consist entirely of jukebox oldies mostly redolent of 1980s club days, from Madonna to Diana Ross to, most absurdly, Jimmy Webb (there actually is a cake left out in the rain), all of them quite familiar to many generations of listeners.

The selection is pointedly inspirational, not inspired, regrettably ignoring the fact that the underworld of disco was a fervent incubator of enduring art and expression, virtually none of which was ever heard by suburban white straight fans during the unendurable post-Saturday Night Fever craze. Nevertheless, like Beethoven’s Ninth, which can prevail with its transcendence intact however amateur the execution, the Gloria Gaynor anthem I Will Survive never fails to score, and this show is smart enough to deploy it as both the first and second act curtain number.

Then there are the costumes. Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner won the Oscar for their designs in the movie but vastly outdo themselves here as the sheer volume and extravagant fantasy make a Catherine Martin-Baz Luhrmann vision appear blushingly modest by comparison. It’s as if Australia has been bedecked as Oz. While too much may be more than enough, the glittering excess remains persistently amusing throughout, a cornucopia of delight one waits to exhaust its welcome yet never does.

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In fact, the dogged professionalism of the production may both underlie its shortcoming of vision and be its saving grace. The actors, all seasoned veterans, know how to hold the stage and impart the necessary emotional information with broad clarity and touching skill, though depth is pointedly avoided. For a show that is amply long at two-and-a-half hours, it’s a blessing that it gets better as it goes along.

Best by far is a flashback memory of the classic Les Girls revue from the 1960s, featuring a young vision of Bernadette in full follies fashion doing the Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields immortal A Fine Romance with a transporting flair that hints at a grace otherwise outside the ken of this unconstrained crowd-pleasing frolic.

Venue: Pantages Theatre, Hollywood (runs through June 16)

Cast: Wade McCollum, Scott Willis, Bryan West, Joe Hart, Taurean Everett, Nik Alexzander, Chelsea Zeno, David Koch, Christy Faber, Travis Taber, Babs Rubenstein, Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, Brit West

Director: Simon Philips, based on the original New York direction by David Hyslop

Book: Stephan Elliott & Allan Scott, based on the 1994 motion picture The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert by Elliott

Choreographer: Ross Coleman, recreated by Joshua Buscher

Costume designer: Tim Chappel & Lizzy Gardiner

Production designer: Brian Thomson

Lighting designer: Nick Schlieper (with Jonathan Spencer)

Sound designer: Jonathan Deans & Peter Fitzgerald

Music Supervision, arrangements: Stephen “Spud” Murphy

Orchestrations: Murphy, Charlie Hull

Music Director: Brent Frederick