Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Theater Review: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

My personal taste does not usually draw on what is commonly referred to as jukebox musicals, and were it not for some civilized inhibitions you might have seen me desperately running up the aisle of the Winter Garden Theatre in search of any exit sign when Momma Mia took that glorious house hostage for what now already seems like half a century. There is the occasional exception, of course, and Jersey Boys (reviewed on this site in October 2010), though it technically falls into a similar musical category, provided an enjoyable and stirring evening at the theatre.

And if (like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock) I were tied to the stake, I’d have to confess that there are some guilty pleasures to be enjoyed currently at New York’s historic Palace Theatre, where Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which is certainly a crowd-pleaser extraordinaire, is unsurprisingly enthralling (and sometimes electrifying) a large turnout eight times each week. This jukebox musical, which was co-produced by Bette Midler and is based on Stephan Elliott’s 1994 Oscar-winning Australian film about three drag queens who receive an offer to perform their outrageous, lip-synching act in a very remote town in central Australia, literally makes the legendary, symbolic phrase about audience members dancing in the aisles simply a matter of fact.

The campy, picaresque show, under the direction of Simon Phillips, like the independent movie on which it is based, tells a road-trip tale. It lifts off when Tick (Will Swenson), who is also known as Mitzi, a drag artist, accepts an offer to perform his act in a desert resort called Alice Springs. First, however, he must persuade two fellow entertainers, Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), an aging transsexual, and Adam (Nick Adams), who is also known as Felicia, to accompany him to the boondocks. Tick had apparently received a call in which his ex-wife (Jessica Phillips) convinces him that he should visit the son (now six-years-old) Tick abandoned when he chose to become a female impersonator. It appears, too, that Tick’s former mate is now an entrepreneur who could use a drag act at the club she operates. And the moment the audience catches sight of the dilapidated tour bus named Priscilla (with a large shoe on its roof), which will serve as the mode of transportation for the trio, it erupts with cheers more suited to a ballpark than a legitimate theatre.

The musical’s book (by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott), which has been directed by Simon Phillips, traces the foolhardy journey of the trio. And the three performers do have a fine rapport on stage.  Among the adventures these actors experience “on the road” during their bizarre, picaresque journey are the antics of a group of rednecks and several novelty numbers, most notably an old gal who performs a strange act with a part of her anatomy. However, the scraggy plot doesn’t much matter.  What gives the show its energy and spark are the musical numbers.  You’ll recognize some (if not all) of the  selections, which include “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Material Girl,” I Will Survive,” “Like a Prayer,” and, more to my taste, “A Fine Romance,” the classic number by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields: “You’ve never mussed the crease in my blue serge pants/You never take a chance, this is a fine romance.”

Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won an Oscar for the film’s costumes, repeat their wizardry here. Nick Schlieper is responsible for the fiery lighting and the hoedown-like choreography is by Ross Coleman. And, too, I suppose that theatergoers should be cautioned that there are enough feathers, both on stage and off, to tickle your fancy.