Theatre Review: Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Did you ever wonder what might happen if you handed the folks who produce the female impersonator revues at the Footlights Theater a ginormous bag of money and told them to go crazy? The answer, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, can be found at the Bob Carr, where the blinged-out lavender caravan known as Priscilla Queen of the Desert has crashed for the week. This short-lived Broadway musical descends from the award-winning 1994 film (minus The Adventures of prefix), with original writer/director Stephan Elliott adapting his script with Allan Scott, and fusing it with a grab-bag of diva-friendly 80s pop tunes. What results is professionally polished and insistently energetic, but lacks the humanity that made the film an international hit.
Priscilla's plot follows Tick (Wade McCollum), a middle aged Australian drag queen, on his road trip through the outback to reunite with his estranged wife (Christie Faber) and long-lost son Benji (Shane Davis, Will B.) at her rural casino. Along for the ride on their rickety — but fabulously festooned — bus are post-op veteran performer Bernadette (Scott Willis) and Madonna-mimicking upstart Adam (Bryan West). En route to their desert debut, the trio encounters colorful characters like Bob (Joe Hart), who leaves his ping-pong popping wife Cynthia (Chelsea Zeno) to follow their campy caravan, while confronting comically stylized gay-bashing.
I can honestly say, as a straight man who has produced LGBTQ-centric plays from Rocky Horror to Bent, that Priscilla is just about the gayest thing I have ever seen on stage. Once, I might have applauded Orlando's audiences for overcoming their conservative reputation and embracing this show with standing ovations, as they did on opening night. But in a day when same-sex marriage on the verge of widespread acceptance among middle Americans, the hypersexual homosexual stereotypes this show revels in seem regressive, like the feverish Village People fantasies of a fundamentalist preacher.
In fairness, gays aren't the only ones reduced to clumsy caricature; every socio-ethnic group, from rednecks to Asians to Aborigines, is painted with the same cartoonishly broad brush. Juvenile generalizations aside, the book simply doesn't provide enough connective tissue to emotionally engage us with the characters, and director Simon Philips has his cast aim every quip at the back wall without a hint of subtlety. Instead of advancing the plot, the songs strain to have any relevance to the story, with uninspired musical arrangements won't make anyone forget Tina's, Cyndi's, or Gloria's original recordings; none of the leads are standout singers, though the ensemble voices blend nicely.
The only performer able to rise above this rainbow riot is Willis, who not only gets the show's sharpest one-liners, but is given a handful of quiet moments to connect as an actual human being beneath the wigs. Technical elements are also impeccable, if outrageously excessive. Nick Schlieper's lighting makes ingenious use of set-embedded LEDs, and production designer Brian Thompson (the original Rocky Horror Show and Dame Edna) delivers a shoe-topped bus worthy of its iconic screen antecedent. But the real stars of the production are the larger-than-life costumes created by Tim Chappel & Lizzy Gardiner, elaborating on their eye-popping Oscar-winning designs from the film.
If you are attracted to musical theater for spectacular eye candy, broad bawdy humor, and a few familiar tunes, Priscilla will provide an aggressively ebullient evening's entertainment, as long as you don't expect honesty, heart, or any other recognizable human emotions. But, in light of last season's moving mounting of the thematically-similar La Cage Aux Faux, Priscilla's shallow brashness ultimately feels less bold than boring. If you want to see sequin-laden lip-syncing “ladies,” you'll find the Parliament House offers cheaper tickets, stronger drinks, and better odds of getting lucky.