Priscilla Queen of the Desert - Princess of Wales Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, Directed by Simon Phillips
Runs in Toronto until Jan. 2nd 2011. Begins on Broadway on Feb. 28th 2011, Opens Mar. 20th 2011
I was going to title this Over-the-Top Downunder (or something), and avoid using the cliched sentence "Gay Ol' time", but after seeing the exuberantly energetic and very campy Priscilla Queen of the Desert musical, it's really the best way to describe it, in every sense of the word "gay". This happy happy HAPPY musical left me with a silly grin on my face from the moment I stepped into the glittery pink theatre right until even now as I think about the fluffy show. While the Australian jukebox musical, based on the (excellent) now-gay-camp-classic film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, doesn't try for anything deep, it knows exactly what it is, and on colourful platformed shoes, stands up to its glittery promise.
First opened in Australia, then London, a few more changes have been made for the North American audiences as Priscilla is brought to the stage, and while a road-trip movie doesn't easily lend itself to an easy transfer to the stage, Elliot and Scott load the show with so much camp, heart, and crass-drag-queen humour (as it can only be!), and Tom Chappel and Lizzy Garndiner (Oscar winners for the film's costumes) fit the actors into a fashion pageant of over-the-top frills that delight the eye, that you barely notice the thin storyline of 3 Sydney drag queens making their way to the middle of the desert to Alice Springs on a bus they've christened "Priscilla".
Will Swenson (Hair, 110 in the Shade) plays Tick/Mitzi, a drag queen who finally decides to go to Alice Springs to meet his son, from a wife of a life far left behind. Swenson, whose sexual swagger ignited his Berger in Hair, brings a nice masculine opposition within his Tick/Mitzi. Swenson's duality between the feminine Mitzi, and his attempt at being straight-acting butch Tick as he crosses the macho Australian desert, is wonderfully played out that manages to avoid caricature with a sweet tender self-inducing confliction. Swenson's voice sometimes wavers, as his deeper voice (or his attempt at an Australian accent while singing) doesn't seem to get him to some of the high notes required, but Swenson and his attempt to reunite with his son is genuinely heartwarming in the midst of the high-camp show.
Mitzi drags along Bernadette, an aging and retired drag queen, and Adam/Felicia, a young, nimble and ..."active" drag queen, off to perform at the casino where Mitzi/Tick's secret wife and son live, but first, they must survive the journey there together.
Tony Sheldon, who reprises his role as Bernadette from the Sydney and London production, is the oldest of the traveling trio, and comes with the quick quips and sharp tongue of a seasoned "showbiz" veteran, but with an addition lashing from enduing being a transgendered woman on top of it all. Sheldon nicely softens Bernadette from the more embittered version from the movie. Swenson's Tick/Mitzi may be our guide through this journey but Sheldon's Bernadette is definitely driving the bus here, and while his Bernadette is recovering from the death of her beloved "Trumpet", a young fling-of-a-husband, she finds new life and love in the most unlikeliest of places.
Meanwhile, Nick Adams plays Adam/Felicia with such zest and energy and literally seems to bound through the entire show on his muscular physique. His whole performance, from his dancing and physicality, to his gestures and facial reactions, to his beautiful singing voice and his hilarious comebacks, just fully engulfs who Adam/Felicia really is. And with all the gay bravado, Nick Adams' manages to show the cracks beneath all the makeup. With all of Adam/Felicia's antics, it's to Adams' credit that she still comes off as lovable and likable as he does, and you can believe the trio's eventual bonding despite some of the nastier insults they throw at each other.
Veteran Canadian actor C. David Johnson (Street Legal) is lovable as Bob, the mechanic, and his ad-libbing through a technical glitch on opening night ("well, they spent a lot of money on the bus!") sealed the deal! J. Elaine Marcos (A Chorus Line) was a riot as Cynthia, Bob's mail-order bride who comes with a surprise skill (yes, if you've seen the movie, they keep that hilarious/crass, if totally unnecessary scene). Nathan Lee Graham (Wig Out) werks it as Miss Understanding. And a game cast of Divas, Dishy Dancers and Drag Queens fills into the luscious costumes that parade throughout the show.
The catalogue of songs have been slightly changed from the movie (due to rights) or from the Australian and London production (apparently claiming they got the rights to songs they've always wanted, but also because Madonna is more famous than Kylie Minogue on these shores), and they're suitable known, catchy, and fit into the storyline just enough that we don't really question any of it as we get blinded by all the sequins and shininess emanating from the stage.
Incidentally, the Abba songs had to be replaced in the stage musical since they have their own little musical going on, but like Mamma Mia, Priscilla understands that it's truly a fluff and fanciful piece and just run with it (in high heels), only even gayer.
Oh and the bus. I haven't even spoken of Priscilla herself yet. She's quite the dazzling piece of stage machinery, but I did wish sometimes they could dress up the other scenes or the background a little more. Particularly the Ayers Rock scene which took place on an empty stage with no hint of being on top of a giant rock in the desert. It took me halfway through the scene before I realized it was THAT scene (and an important moment for an important line). (I do wonder if the set design in Toronto has been simplified for its short pre-Broadway run, as I've been told the London and Australian versions had more elaborate sets).
Still, Priscilla is quite a spectacle of a night that's all about the glitter and the glam, but with Swenson, Sheldon and Adams' driving us through the night, I found myself even slightly emotionally involved with a little bit of heart revealed beneath all those masking layers. While the show is certainly not going to give any life-changing revelatory moments, it sure will be able to help change and brighten your mood.
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com
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