I went into Priscilla Queen of the Desert with the highest of hopes that it would be a non-stop thrill ride of color, spectacular sets, costumes and exciting dancing. About 2 minutes into I began to get that sinking feeling that this was not going to be the great musical good time of the season. Don't get me wrong. I knew enough to hope this would be Mamma Mia style good times, not next to normal, and not even somewhere in between, like say, Billy Elliot. You see, the problem with Priscilla is that if the scale of intensity was a low of 1 and a high of 10, it starts out at about a 12 and goes higher from there. What's wrong with that, you ask? Well, when you start out that high, it gets nearly impossible to build upon, and quite frankly, it is exhausting.
Another problem is that with so much going on - between director Simon Phillips' frantic staging and Ross Coleman's equally frenzied choreography - including a lot of props and costume changes as part of the dance - you miss some of the central action. About the only reason Will Swenson's entrance is even noticed - he walks into the dance number of all things - is because he is dressed in a non-rainbow color, and because he gets in the way. If you listen closely, you hear snippets of dialogue (during the song and dance) along the lines of "you're late, you washed up old drag queen," etc. The pretty boys aren't shoving him out of the way because he's walking through their number. They are man-handling him (get it?) because they really don't like him. His act is stale - think Marilyn Monroe meets Avenue Q - and he really needs to get the hell out of Sydney (Australia, mate). You kind of get that they're from Down Under from Swenson's accent, but the supporting cast up to this point is more uneven with their speech patterns, and I'm thinking I'm back at La Cage aux Folles with a bigger budget. In the midst of the noise, Will, um, I mean Tick makes a phone call to a friend to bemoan his lot in life, only to discover that the friend, a transgendered woman named Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) is worse off. Seems her lover, Trumpet (I will not even try to explain the reason for this name; it is tasteless and unfunny) has died and she is about to attend his funeral. Of course, this is the world of drag queens, so the occasion calls for a huge production number to "Don't Leave Me This Way." Drag queens in mourning are both wildly funny and shockingly disturbing, and cheap sight gags involving the humping of a casket and ass-less chaps and black umbrellas are the icing on this overbaked cake. It was right around here that I really almost checked out, arms folded and eyes a-rolling.
Some two dozen hits from the 60's through the 90's, ranging from Bacharach and David (please no more musicals with "I Say a Little Prayer" after this season, OK?) to Madonna to M (remember that techno-ditty "Pop Muzic"? After you see this show, I guarantee you will never forget it) to Donna Summer (just thinking of the song "Hot Stuff" now riles me up in anger), and a dazzling production number based on the lyrics to "MacArthur Park." Believe it or not, this may just be the pinnacle of jukebox musicals. The variety of sources make it more surprising and with more possibility than the limits of using one group's song catalogue. And not once - even when it seems like it comes out of nowhere like "MacArthur Park" - does a song feel shoehorned in. You never groan at a song choice for its obviousness, and they have chosen some real doozies. Part of this might have to do with how some songs are rearranged (orchestrations by Stephen "Spud" Murphy and Charlie Hill). They are not always like you hear them on the radio, and take on a life of their own in the context of the show - witness "I Love the Night Life" as a torch song/country ballad, or "We Belong" as an anthem of acceptance.
After those first several off-putting minutes, Simon Phillips' staging becomes more thoughtful and creative, which is no small feat considering that much has to do with being confined to a bus, and finding realistic reasons to get on and off of it. To his credit, Phillips really knows how to counterpoint all of the fabulousness with quiet, meaningful moments - there were four times during the show where I wiped away tears and twice where my stomach was in angry knots. And more to his credit, he gets us to feel deeply, then moves us right back into party mode. Clearly, his objective is to entertain, make us feel, and then entertain us some more. Similarly, Ross Coleman's choreography (supervised by Jerry Mitchell, following Mr. Coleman's untimely passing) is frenetic much of the time - in fact, it comes across as rather busy, fussy and repetitive, not unlike the dance moves at any number of gay clubs in big cities - and actually kind of dull by the 5th production number in a row. But then, he pulls out something small, slower paced and elegant, and you find yourself loving the dancing all over again.
To be honest, the spectacle a lot of times obliterates the story and the characters, but the whole thing is so much fun you hardly notice. There are the three "divas" who descend from the heavens to sing, diva-like, naturally. Sometimes they (Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey and Ellyn Marie Marsh) sing as commentary to the action, sometimes they provide the singing voices for the lip-syncing drag queens, and other times they just add to the fun. Aside from their singing, they provide no discernible aid to the plot, are never explained or, for that matter, addressed by the cast (save for a duet of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" - go figure - between the Divas and Adam). Some nice one scene characters add some depth to the book scenes, including Nathan Lee Graham as Miss Understanding, a drag queen hostess/Tina Turner impersonator, James Brown III as a faux aboriginal tour guide, and Steve Schepis as Young Bernadette, who is all glamour and style and proving why old school is sometimes the better education. And the scene stealer of the year has to be J. Elaine Marcos who plays the mail order bride of a bus mechanic. She is the one who does a number to the song "Pop Muzic" and nearly stops the show. She does a "trick" with ping pong balls that cannot be described here without my locking the review from the view of anyone under 18. It is HILARIOUS.
Much of the emotional ground work comes from Esther Stilwell (in for Keala Settle) as mullet wearing, bar owner and down on her luck in love, Shirley, who milks every possible laugh and a nice dose of empathy from "I Love the Nightlife (I Love to Boogie)," and Jessica Phillips as Marion, Tick's wife and the mother of their child, who Tick has never met. She plays the role with such sincerity that you honestly believe that she accepts her husband's gay life and has really raised their son without prejudice. (And I say "believe"because her sincerity is played so for real.) But the real tug-at-your-heart stuff comes from the utterly adorable and charming Luke Mannikus who you'd swear was really from Australia, so superb is his accent. His duet with Swenson - clearly as smitten with the kid as the audience is - will bring even the coldest-hearted to tears. Best of all, the boy is as genuine as they come; there is not a trace of "cute kid actor" in him. Perhaps the most interesting character, though is the bus mechanic, Bob, played with warmth and manly sweetness by C. David Johnson. He is drawn to Bernadette because of a fond memory from the past, and is smitten enough with her to join the bus trip and leave his annoying wife behind. Does he know Bernadette is transgendered? Does he he know that when he first fell for her years ago, she was really a man? And do they really end up together? It is nice that the show brings it up and leaves that for the audience to answer.
As piled on as the spectacle is, ultimately Priscilla works because of its quieter moments. Not bad for a show whose main characters are inherently larger than life and a bus. I guess that's what really struck me about the show. The bus is amazing. The costumes are amazing. And all 20 production numbers are amazing. And yet, I left the show wanting to spend just a little more time with Priscilla and her family. How many times can you say that about a show that you started out not liking that much?
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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