Priscilla Queen of the Desert: Theater Review

Big, brassy, unapologetically profane and over the top -- it's no wonder Bette Midler signed on as a producer. 

What "Mamma Mia!" did for Abba, director Simon Phillips' stage adaptation of the 1994 Australian road movie does for a foot-tapping mega-mix that lifts primarily from '70s disco and '80s pop.

NEW YORK -- It takes the chutzpah and shameless theatricality of an army of drag queens to shove a cake onstage simply as a set-up for "MacArthur Park." At that point, resistance to the brash charms of Priscilla Queen of the Desert becomes futile.

What Mamma Mia! did for Abba, this stage adaptation of the 1994 Australian road movie does for a foot-tapping mega-mix that lifts primarily from '70s disco and '80s pop, but dips with equal gusto into Elvis, Petula Clark, Jerome Kern and Verdi.

Jukebox musicals are all about shoehorning hits into a jerry-built plot by whatever means necessary. But in "MacArthur Park," Priscilla sets a new benchmark, appropriating some of the loopiest lyrics in 20th century pop. Beginning in the original Richard Harris vein as a poignant reflection on love and glory, won and lost, the song then switches to Donna Summer mode, yielding a delirious production number with cupcakes twirling in the rain.

That anything-goes sensibility runs riot in Priscilla, which stands guilty on charges of crassness, clunky storytelling and undue slavishness to its source material. Subtlety has no home here. What the show does deliver, however, is joyous crowd-pleasing entertainment, raunchy humor, eye-popping visuals and unexpected heart.

Instigator of the story's journey from Sydney to remote Alice Springs is Tick (Will Swenson), a drag performer who wed his choreographer, Marion (Jessica Phillips), during a momentary lapse of heterosexuality, and fathered a son, Benji (Luke Mannikus and Ashton Woerz alternate in the role).

Six-year-old Benji wants to meet Dad, and the casino Marion runs needs a new floorshow, so Tick recruits freshly widowed transsexual Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and muscle-bound Madonna fan Adam (Nick Adams) to round out the act. The vehicle for their Outback odyssey is a beat-up bus christened Priscilla.

Developed by the show's director Simon Phillips and adapted from his screenplay by the film's writer-director Stephan Elliott with Allan Scott, Priscilla gets off to an uncertain start.

The writers and director seem less interested in exposition or character establishment than in stringing together outrageous showstoppers, often to exhausting effect. Act one alone has eight campy production numbers, starting with "It's Raining Men," in which three divas (Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, Ashley Spencer) descend from the flies to shadow the protagonists on and off throughout the show.

There's A LOT going on. While much of it is gaudy, fabulous and funny, it's not until act two that the aggressively high-energy musical calms down enough to allow emotional investment in its characters.

This comes largely via the anchoring presence of Sheldon's divine Bernadette. She's soft and vulnerable one minute, maternal the next, yet always ready to dispense an acerbic put-down. Elegant and dignified, the Australian actor could pass for Cate Blanchett's mother.

Sheldon has been with the show since its earliest Sydney incarnation in 2006, which accounts for the deeply etched back-story he brings to the role. A former old-school drag headliner, Bernadette sells "allure and illusion," the antithesis of in-your-face Felicia, Adam's drag alter ego. Bernadette has absorbed her share of knocks and had scant luck in love, which makes the tender blossoming of romance with gentlemanly mechanic Bob (C. David Johnson) all the more touching.

Adams has the tough task of humanizing a character who speaks exclusively in bitchy quips and lewd innuendo, but he gets there by working his prodigiously toned butt off. Central as it is to the story, Tick's arc lacks definition. Swenson struggles to bring much beyond basic warmth to the "straight-man" role of buffer between his polar-opposite companions.

Elliott and Scott's book improves on the movie in its big-hearted endorsement of unorthodox families forged from their shared outsider experience. This theme emerges satisfyingly in the closing stretch, despite a clumsy transition to Felicia's triumphant realization of a lifelong dream at Ayers Rock.

Phillips and choreographer Ross Coleman(who died in 2009 and whose work is being supervised on Broadway by Jerry Mitchell) subscribe to the more-is-more school of staging, which carries over into the design. Brian Thomson's bus is no less a star than the principals, particularly after its gun-metal gray exterior gets a neon-pink makeover to match the trailer-park chic interior.

Above all, hats off -- or peacock-plumed headdresses -- to the wildly inventive costumes of Oscar-winning team Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, reprising their film duties. And to the dressers on what must be a labor-intensive nightmare backstage. The finale medley unleashes an orgy of iconic Australiana, which seems only fitting for a show not the least bit shy about its taste for flaming excess.

Venue: Palace Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon, Nick Adams, C. David Johnson, James Brown III, Nathan Lee Graham, J. Elaine Marcos, Mike McGowan, Jessica Phillips, Steve Schepis, Keala Settle, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, Ashley Spencer, Luke Mannikus, Ashton Woerz
Book: Stephan Elliott, Allan Scott, based on the Latent Image/Specific Films movie, released by MGM
Director: Simon Phillips
Production designer: Brian Thomson
Costume designers: Tim Chappel, Lizzy Gardiner
Lighting designer: Nick Schlieper
Sound designers: Jonathan Deans, Peter Fitzgerald
Production supervisor: Jerry Mitchell
Choreographer: Ross Coleman
Music supervision/arrangements: Stephen "Spud" Murphy
Orchestrations: Stephen "Spud" Murphy, Charlie Hull
Music director: Jeffrey Klitz
Presented by Bette Midler, James L. Nederlander, Garry McQuinn, Liz Koops, Michael Hamlyn, Allan Scott, Roy Furman/Richard Willis, Terry Allen Kramer, Terri and Timothy Childs, Ken Greiner, Ruth Hendel, Chugg Entertainment, Michael Buckley, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, Bruce Davey, Thierry Suc/TS3, Bartner/Jenkins, Broadway Across America/H. Koenigsberg, M. Lerner/D.Bisno/K. Seidel/R. Gold, Paul Boskind and Martian Entertainment/Spirtus-Mauro Productions/MAS Music Arts & Show, David Mirvish, in association with MGM On Stage, Darcie Denkert and Dean Stolber