After performances in Australia and London, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” has put down roots in Toronto prior to its advance to Broadway this spring, and the tuner version of the 1994 film arrives in very good shape indeed. Light years superior to the London production in terms of production standards, pacing (it’s 30 minutes shorter) and the emotional honesty of the leading players, this entry stands an excellent chance of an extended Gotham life after a bit of nipping and tucking (which, of course, is requisite treatment for any drag queen on the road).
The story centers on three outcasts from the drag scene in Sydney — transsexual Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), bisexual Tick (Will Swenson) and flamboyant Adam (Nick Adams) — and how they board a bus to go looking for love in the Australian Outback. Like the film, the tuner (which began in 2007) has always been an appealing clothesline on which to hang some charming characterizations, extravagant costumes and an assortment of drag routines. The entire score is made up of old disco favorites, with “It’s Raining Men” providing a snappy beginning and “I Will Survive” a rousing first-act closer.
Those familiar with the film may be initially shocked, but eventually delighted, at how slick and spectacular the routines have become, but there’s still a wonderful air of the rough-and-ready Oz drag tradition that separates this show from the more genteel “La Cage aux Folles,” for example.
Simon Phillips’ direction keeps things moving along nicely, although the show’s initial sequences in a Sydney drag club take a while to get going and should be trimmed. And the choreography by the late Ross Coleman (with an uncredited assist, reportedly, from Jerry Mitchell) leaves no drag cliche unturned.
The show, with book by Stephan Elliott (who wrote and directed the pic) and Allan Scott, lets things remain raunchy, such as graphic descriptions of one character’s foreskin. There’s no question the show has a gay perspective, but the humanity of the personalities onstage lends it a near-universal appeal.
Sheldon, who has played the grande dame Bernadette in every production, combines dignity, drop-dead delivery and bittersweet vulnerability in a character that could have been distasteful. Adams breaks out bigtime in the role of Adam (aka Felicia), who dreams of singing a medley of Madonna’s songs in full drag on the top of Ayers Rock. Adams has a winning, ingenuous face, which contrasts beautifully with his impossibly toned body and trash-talk vocabulary.
The biggest surprise for New York audiences may be Swenson in the pivotal role of Tick, who once upon a time was married and sired a child. Swenson, who most recently impressed auds with his hyper-sexy Berger in “Hair,” is audaciously queeny in most of his musical numbers, but knows just how to pull back to play the hurt and loss of a man who’s been long separated from his child. “Priscilla” is actually the story of his journey.
C. David Johnson rounds out the picture nicely as Bob, the super-butch mechanic who comes to fix the bus and stays to fall in love; in a scene-stealing turn as his wife, J. Elaine Marcos displays a real penchant for launching ping-pong balls using inappropriate parts of her body.
The 320 costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (who won Oscars for the ’94 pic) display an inventive use of color and a wicked sense of humor, and Brian Thomson’s electrified bus makes the best of a bad situation: You need to see the damn bus, but does it need to occupy so much stage space? Still, the production as a whole looks spectacular, with every penny of the rumored $15 million budget visible onstage.
The jukebox aspect of “Priscilla” is less annoying than in many other similar entries, because the show knows when not to take it itself too seriously. What initially seems a too-serious rendition of “MacArthur Park” by Sheldon soon turns into a camp showstopper, with members of the chorus dressed as the giant green cake someone left out in the rain, while Swenson gyrates like Peter Allen at his most abandoned.
There are a few moments that slip into blatant sentimentality; the show could do without some of the “dream” appearances of Tick’s son in act one, especially one involving bubbles. But at present, “Priscilla” is a visual knockout, a real crowd-pleaser and, ultimately, a great heart-tugger as well.