Priscilla, a tricked-up tour bus with a shoe on the roof, rolls onto the stage of the Palace Theater to roars from the audience, and proceeds to turn, twist and light up pink and purple. And then does it again (and again and again). So goes the brashly good-natured Aussie musical to which the bus lends its name, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” which, born from Stephan Elliott’s 1994 film, seems destined to follow the path of “Mamma Mia!” Inartful here, crass there, this rollicking crowdpleaser in sequins nonetheless packs enough heart to leave the masses enthralled.
Tale tells of three drag-show performers on a road trip of discovery through the Outback. Protagonist Tick (Will Swenson) is shamed by his ex-wife into visiting Benji (Luke Mannikus and Ashton Woerz alternating in the role), the 6-year-old son he left behind when he chose to put his mascara on; middle-aged transsexual Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) is looking for one last hurrah; outrageous young buck Adam (Nick Adams) just wants to have fun. Off they go through the desert to the inland casino run by Tick’s estranged wife, beset by rowdy rednecks and a clogged gas tank.
Standout perf comes from Sheldon, an Australian who has played the role on three continents thus far. His Bernadette is simultaneously outrageous and human, caustic yet warmhearted. Swenson, star of the recent “Hair,” does fine in heels and is especially tender when interacting with Benji. Adams, meanwhile, has high spirits and plenty for oglers to ogle. C. David Johnson offers low-key support as a gentle fellow who befriends the trio, and there is a raucously funny contribution from Keala Settle as a gruff lowlife in a poolroom.
Librettists Elliott and Allan Scott spend a bit too much time getting the boys on the bus; once en route, though, there’s not much to do other than spin Priscilla around or bring on folksy townspeople to sing yet another ineffective production number. Second act starts at a low ebb, with the ensemble dragging up audience members for a country hoedown, followed by an extraneous number in which a girl dancer (J. Elaine Marcos) fires Ping-Pong balls out into the auditorium, without using a paddle. If you are so fortunate — or unfortunate — as to have one of these pink balls land in your lap, you will find they bear the show’s logo with the warning “for external use only.”
As with “Mamma Mia!,” existing songs are shoehorned in with little rhyme or reason. (The “Priscilla” film was built on pre-existing disco hits, but only four have been retained in the Broadway song-stack.) The playbill contains 35 producer bios but no mention of the songwriters — who include Bacharach, Madonna and Kern — or singers of the many lip-synched songs.
Finest work of the evening, along with that of Sheldon, comes from costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. The pair shared an Oscar for the film, and their wares here — including those hats! — positively sparkle. Staging by Simon Phillips and choreography by the late Ross Coleman are energetic, if occasionally aimless and overdone. Jerry Mitchell (“Legally Blonde”) is prominently credited as production supervisor, and one expects he’s helped whip “Priscilla” into glossy shape.
Show arrives as an international hit, following stints in Australia, New Zealand, London and Toronto; one can easily anticipate “Priscilla” rolling into major capitals across the world as quickly as they can procure enough feathers. For all the glitz, though — and there is a lot of glitz — there’s a heart ticking true beneath it all, and that should earn “Priscilla” a long and profitable run at the Palace, with the merchandise stand doing big business in purple boas.