Review: ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’

'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert'

Subtle it ain't. Running the gamut from salmon to puce, the governing aesthetic of this DayGlo camp revamp is back to the fuchsia. But flaunting a situation rather than a plot, those behind "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" never bothered with seriously developed drama in the first place.

Subtle it ain’t. Running the gamut from salmon to puce, the governing aesthetic of this DayGlo camp revamp is back to the fuchsia. But flaunting a situation rather than a plot, those behind “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” never bothered with seriously developed drama in the first place. Simon Phillips’ enjoyably shameless tuner restyling of this tale of self-affirmation on heels and wheels doesn’t so much teeter toward as topple into self-indulgence. But audiences happily whipped up into having, in every sense, a gay old time are likely to overlook its curious flaws.

Most bizarrely, this is the tuner without a sole composer credit. The 1994 Australian cult movie, the story of three disaffected drag queens who drive a bus named Priscilla from Sydney to Alice Springs because one of them is being forced to make peace with his previously undisclosed wife and son, had songs but no singers. All three characters were lip-synchers, so the soundtrack simply raided pop’s back catalog.

By contrast, although the finest singing in the stage version comes from the live vocals of three knock-’em-dead divas (Zoe Birkett, Kate Gillespie, Emma Lindars) lowered in from the flies in increasingly insane costumes, the lead characters also sing live when revealing their emotions.

Choosing appropriate songs to match moods is an art famously perfected by “Mamma Mia!,” but where that show exhibited genuine wit in its choices, the decisions here appear random.

Initial lyric plausibility appears to be the only guide. At one point, in a show devoted to disco anthems, Bob (Clive Carter), the wannabe raunchy rancher who teams up with them, lurches ruefully into, of all things, a straight version of Rodgers and Hart’s “A Fine Romance.” Worse, when the queens encounter homophobia, they sing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”

But moments like those are not so much counterbalanced as swamped by the production’s sheer high spirits, as exemplified by its cast.

Jason Donovan’s Tick is nominally the lead. Donovan (a former Australian soap teen heartthrob turned pop star) possesses adequate skills, but his stage wattage never rises above warm. He is well meaning in the sentimental scenes reproduced from the movie but is easily outshone by his co-stars.

Tony Sheldon repeats his winning performance from the original Oz cast, bringing all the wit, charm and pathos that were missing in Terence Stamp’s humorless portrayal of weary transsexual Bernadette. Seriously buff Oliver Thornton has a ball with Adam, never walking when he can flounce, never missing an opportunity to point his feet as well as his remarks.

Almost no one else has a major role, but the ensemble redefine the term “hard working.”

Ross Coleman’s up-and-at-’em choreography may be unimaginative — how did they manage to make the idea of giant dancing paintbrushes so unfunny? — but numbers are so punchily organized, timed and lit they induce roars of applause.

A show in which audience members are invited up onstage for a barn dance at the top of the second act may be regarded as brazen. And that’s certainly the adjective that best describes the production’s most extravagantly successful element — its design. Brian Thomson’s sets — especially the impressively lit bus — may be the show’s real star. That said, video screens have had to be erected at the side of the orchestra seats to compensate for poor sightlines during certain sequences.

But Thomson’s inventive work is given its zing by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s ceaseless parade of spectacular costumes, making “Wicked” look like a weekend in Amish country.

Priscilla’s London design sees the top of the proscenium arch decorated with giant Australian pennies. Will it pay back its investment? There’s competition in London’s current hit revival of another grand-scale, truly gay musical, “La Cage aux Folles.” But judging by the newcomer’s infectious feel-good tone, this show’s even higher levels of sentimentality and cheerfully filthy humor are anything but adrag.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Palace Theater, London; 1,361 seats; £64.25 $95 top


A Back Row Prods., Specific Films, Rafford Films, Chugg Entertainment, Gordon Frost Organization, Mirvish Prods., Really Useful Group presentation, in association with MGM on Stage, Darcie Denkert and Dean Stolber, of a musical in two acts with book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, based on the Latent Image/Specific Films motion picture released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by Simon Phillips. Songs selected and interpolated by Phillips. Musical direction, Richard Beadle. Choreography, Ross Coleman.


Set, Brian Thomson; costumes, Tim Chappel, Lizzy Gardiner; lighting, Nick Schlieper; sound, Michael Waters; makeup, Cassie Hanlon; musical supervision/arrangements, Stephen "Spud" Murphy; orchestrations, Murphy, Charlie Hull; production stage manager, Jo Miles. Opened, reviewed March 23, 2009. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.


Tick - Jason Donovan Bernadette - Tony Sheldon Adam - Oliver Thornton Bob - Clive Carter Cynthia - Kanako Nakano
With: Zoe Birkett, Kate Gillespie, Emma Lindars, Amy Field, Danielle Coombe, Wezley Sebastian, Darius Caple, Gene Goodman, Christopher Militiadou, Cameron Sayers, Red Walker, Philip Arran, John Brannoch, Steven Cleverley, Matthew Cole, Amy Edwards, Lewis Griffiths, Bob Harms, Mark Inscoe, Zabrina Norry, Will Peaco, John Phoenix, James Rees, Craig Ryder, Jeremy Seacomb, Jon Tsouras, Tristan Temple.  Musical numbers: "Downtown," "I've Never Been to Me," "What's Love Got to Do With It?," "Don't Leave Me This Way," "Venus," "Go West" "Say a Little Prayer," "I Love the Nightlife," "Both Sides Now," "Sempre Libera," "Color My World," "I Will Survive," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," "A Fine Romance," "Shake Your Groove Thing," "Pop Muzik," "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," "Hot Stuff," "MacArthur Park," "Boogie Wonderland," "Come Into My World," "Always on My Mind," "Kylie Minogue Medley" "We Belong," "Finally."
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