Priscilla Queen of the Desert Has Sparkle, Color & Disco Hits But Seems a Bit Dated
The set-up: Without apology for fear of being bashed by the politically correct, I can honestly say that this new jukebox musical, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, is "so gay." Unabashedly so. Normally, this would be a good thing, except this hyper-colored valentine, all bells, whistles, and razzle dazzle, has the musty smell of a world gone by. The execution: This sweaty and muscular musical, based on the 1994 cult Australian movie, beats you over the head until you're defenseless, smothered under tons of sequins, mylar, and sort-of bitchy bon mots that I thought went out in the '80s. This is the gay world for blue hairs: slightly naughty, but oh-so-sweet, uplifting and terribly non-threatening. We're just like you, the musical proclaims in non-stop numbers that quickly resemble each succeeding one, only we like to wear towering platform shoes and fantastic wigs in the shape of ribbon candy, or pom poms, or candle flames, or...
For a musical that hit Broadway in 2011, after a 2006 premiere in hometown Sydney and a run that included London, it's so old-fashioned and eager to please that you expect Noel Coward to materialize and sing a ditty. If this is what gay pride is all about on Broadway, there may be a few too many steps backward for the number of scant steps forward. Jerry Herman's La Cages aux Folles is subversive by comparison.
Stereotypes abound. To be fair, they're equally scattered, so everybody gets skewered: fat, horny, unattractive women; German tourists; Outback rednecks; or Asian mail-order brides. Unfortunately, so do the leading gay characters.
Tick (Wade McCollum), a.k.a. Mitzi, his drag name, sets the glitzy disco ball spinning because his wife (Christy Faber), who lives in the wilds of Alice Springs with their son (Shane Davis; Will B. in other performances), asks him to come home and perform his drag act in her casino which has lost its musical act. Tick hasn't seen his son in years, having moved to the big city to find himself after Benji was born.
Tick gathers two of his friends to accompany him: outlandish Adam, a.k.a. Felicia (Bryan West), and post-op transsexual Bernadette (Scott Willis). Felicia is out there, a buff fireplug of swish, whose patron saint is Madonna. Bernadette is from the "old" school of lip-syncing drag, she's all about attitude and glamor, bewigged and dressed like Lauren Bacall. Their waspish put-downs of each other are half the show.
Willis is reason enough to see this pre-Stonewall-like dinosaur; his Bernadette is the only real person on stage, wise and motherly, but with a mouth like Mae West. Her "True Colors," sung after their fabulous bus, Priscilla, is marred by hateful graffiti, is a highlight of the first act. Willis pulls this musical together in wondrous, sly ways. She doesn't need outrageous platform shoes, she lifts up the show on her very sensible high heels. Considered over the hill by the younger generation, Bernadette is just looking for love, and finds it with average Bob (Joe Hart), the mechanic who rescues the trio when Priscilla breaks down in the desert. We root for this showbiz, drag show veteran who's still got plenty of snap.
The adventures continue, bigotry is confronted, hearts are mended, the disco hits continue unabated.
Creators Stephen Elliott (writer of the movie screenplay) and Allan Scott must have recognized the been-there-done-that nature of the material, for they, along with director Simon Phillips and choreographer Ross Coleman, overflow the Hobby Center with dazzling eye candy. First there's that Chippendales quartet of male chorus boys, stripped of their costumes right from the start down to their sequined jockstraps. They've got to be the best looking kick-line on tour anywhere. Then there's that "Diva" trio (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, and Brit West) who descend from above like Wagnerian Rhine maidens to amplify and supplement the musical numbers. This backup group from on-high is sassy and heavenly in tune.
Then there's Priscilla, that Barbie of a bus who's a character all by itself, created by production designer Brian Thompson. She careens across the stage, tires rotating, digital projections whirring on her sides, living and breathing more than the cardboard people inside. Then, of course, there are those outrageous Tony/Academy Award-winning costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, an entire era of bad taste and hilarity right in your face. Dancing cupcakes and paintbrushes, a dress made of flipflops, bolts of calico for the western number, Gumby-like pantaloons, barrels of sequins, rainbow wigs - it's like watching an entire season of The Sonny and Cher Show. Even while we marvel at the tacky inventiveness, the never-ending parade grows tiresome.
While the interpolated songs don't always match what's happening on stage with first-rate clarity, they are a who's who of hot disco hits. The music rights must have cost a fortune: "It's Raining Men," "What's Love Got to Do With It," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Material Girl," "I Will Survive," are just the icing on this jaunty soundtrack. The authors even mine the American Songbook for Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields's "A Fine Romance," from the Astaire/Rogers Swing Time (1936), used as a flashback for Bernadette's glory days. There's something for everybody to karaoke to.
The verdict: Only a few years old, Priscilla, like its music, seems from decades past. Tick accepts domesticity, Bernadette settles, and feisty Felicia goes it alone. Supposedly out and proud, these guys haven't left the closet very far behind. Shocking pink, that charismatic bus of theirs has gone a lot farther.
Disco, glitter, and wicked gayness get tremendous Broadway gloss through Theatre Under the Stars' touring production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, playing through October 12 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at TUTS.com or call 713-558-8887. $15-$124.
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