Yet another entry in the movies-into-musicals genre opens tonight on Broadway, and this one actually makes sense, at least on paper. The 1994 breakout Australian hit "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" would seem a natural choice for a stage show: larger-than-life characters, über-dramatic goings on, and the chance for a costume designer to bust out more bugle-beads and ostrich-plumes this side of La Cage aux Folles.
Alas, in the transition to Broadway's storied Palace Theatre, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert seems to have been diminished by a lot more than just a few words from the title. The show has been a hit in its home country, as well as London and Toronto, and it's certainly a feast for the eyes, but it's a repast that ultimately amounts to nothing more than a nutrition-deprived heap of empty calories.
The book to Priscilla, by original screenwriter Stephan Elliot and producer Allan Scott, seems blissfully unconstrained by such limiting factors as reality and taste. They've essentially taken the skeleton story from the original screenplay and shoehorned in a bunch of hoary jokes, groan-worthy sight gags, and a relentless barrage of glitzy production numbers, while leaving anything remotely approximating human drama on the cutting-room floor.
I was a bit disappointed to hear that Priscilla would not have an original score, relying instead on such "period" songs as "Shake Your Groove Thing," "I Will Survive," and "It's Raining Men." But that turned out to be the least of the show's troubles. The real problem here is that the creators, including director Simon Phillips, choreographer Ross Coleman, and "production supervisor" Jerry Mitchell, have misjudged what made the film appealing in the first place. Sure, the costumes and the camp were fun. But what really made the movie a charmer were the three sympathetic characters at the core of the story. The creators seem to have been so hell-bent on cramming the show with glitter and shtick that they've forgotten the people underneath. There are 28 separate numbers listed in the program; after a while, the songs start to blend together into an undifferentiated morass.
The show also falls victim to a failing all too common in the movies-to-musicals genre: relying too heavily on audience members having seen the original film. Lazy creators too often seem to fall back on the "everyone's seen the movie" element, and in the process of making room for the musical numbers cut out too much of the character development and plot exposition. For instance, in Priscilla, the iconic moment from the film when Felicia rides in the giant shoe on top of the bus (see the logo above) has no real setup here. We just go from one scene to the shoe scene to another without benefit of context or explanation. A number of my Boston Conservatory students were in the audience the night that I saw Priscilla, none of whom had seen the movie, and when I talked to them at intermission, this was one of the scenes that had them scratching their heads.
Priscilla's second act has a few moments that almost redeem the show, particularly when it starts to find some heart. The central drag queen Tick/Mitzi is played here rather uncovincingly by the normally reliable Will Swenson. I suppose part of the problem was that I never, for a second, bought Swenson as a gay man or a drag queen, despite his clearly studied fey mannerisms. (Will, would it kill you to bevel?) When Tick finally has some quality time with his son (yeah, he has a son, which the show never fully explains), the two share an all-too-rare moment of human connection, but it's over almost as soon as it's begun, and the show then returns to its high-octane camp and superficial emoting.
The Broadway Priscilla also features Tony Sheldon, who originated the stage role of Bernadette in the Australian production, and has since played the part in London and Toronto. Sheldon was professional, but had the slick, superficial polish of someone who's been performing the role for years already. He did have some wonderful comedic and emotional moments in the show, particularly during the flashback to his triumphant years as a headliner with a drag revue called "Les Girls." But the construct of having a present-day character shadowed by a ghost from the past has been done before and better in Stephen Sondheim's Follies. Yes, everything's been done before, and there are no original ideas, and it all depends on execution, but this borrowed moment was all too indicative of the derivative, uninspired nature of the production as a whole.
The keenest spark in the cast was undoubtedly Nick Adams as Adam/Felicia. (Full disclosure: Nick is a Boston Conservatory grad, although I did not have him as a student.) But even Adams seems forced and unrestrained here, a morass of over-the-top energy, and a clear indication that nobody in charge really had a handle on any particular tone for the show, or that everyone was too focused on the visuals, the flying divas, and the spectacular set to notice that certain elements were getting a tad out of hand. [Insert obligatory Spider-Man reference here.]