Monday, March 21, 2011

WHY DID IT GO WEST? -- 'Priscilla, Queen of The Desert' on Broadway

Publish Post

That's just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock.

Spoken by Bernadette, the knife-sharp, oldest member of the traveling trio, it is the most enduring quote from the cult classic film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of The Desert. The joke itself is in sarcastic response to Felicia, a younger and substantially more spastic drag queen. Felicia (also knows as Adam) expresses his desire to...

"Go where no drag queen has gone before. Climb to the top of Ayers Rock in full showgirl sequins and feathers, and sing a dazzling medley of Kylie (now Madonna) classics"

"That's great. That's just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock."

Since 2006, Priscilla Queen of The Desert has been playing various stages in Sydney, London, and Toronto in the form of a big budget, glitzy musical spectacular. A funny choice for a low-budget, campy film. Priscilla, which opened Sunday March 20, has only now steered its " budget Barbie camper van" toward Broadway. While watching a recent performance of Priscilla, I was more than slightly disconcerted when the audience, performers, and even the creative team seemed to collectively agree with Bernadette's bitter sentiments.

I first saw Priscilla Queen of The Desert (directed by Simon Phillips) two years ago in London, where it has been playing to enthusiastic West End crowds since March 2009. To my surprise, I was blissfully swept away (Madonna pun) by the musical. Yes, it's big and campy and unoriginal, but I felt the stage version wholly captured the heart of the movie, while still finding its own unique identity apart from the beloved film. And unlike its other jukebox musical brethren, Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, and Rock of Ages, Priscilla is surprisingly poignant. Sure it's surface poignancy, but poignancy none the less.

But that was London. This is Broadway. While the physical production is almost entirely identical, with only minor changes made to accommodate the Palace Theatre, the emotional punch that the production packed in London has been reduced to a Roman Forum-like fragmentation.

I know. Pretty harsh words for a seemingly simple crowd-pleaser. But in London, Priscilla transcended its textual simplicity and really allowed the audience to accept these characters into their lives. It created a shared experience of palpable love and vitality. On Broadway, audiences are merely laughing at silly drag queens, and the creative team (including the original screenwriter, Stephan Elliot) is cowardly giving in to their reaction.

The most substantial change in content made to the Broadway production is the exclusion of all Kylie Minogue songs in favor of the Madonna catalogue. As I mentioned above, in the West End version of Priscilla, the character Felicia has an extreme, uncontrollable obsession with Kylie Minogue - not too far removed from the brand of fandom that Lady Gaga inspires today. Felicia's endearing little quirk gave the show a uniquely Australian flair, keeping with the spirit of the movie, while also underlining his youthfulness. Replacing Kylie with Madonna has not only stripped away one of the more off-beat elements of the show, dehumanizing the characters in the process, but is also quite condescending to its audience. And c'mon! Kylie Minogue songs are great!

Tony Sheldon has played Bernadette in Sydney, London, and Toronto before coming to Broadway, and his performance, while still relatively fresh, could make proficient use of a supermarket produce mister. He has the all the right vulnerability, character, and movement qualities - but his Achille's heel comes in the form of jokes. The timing of that humor is embedded in his DNA at this point, and he left us with the more-than-occasional awkward pause. But regardless, his is the strongest of the three leading performances.

I have yet to mention Tony nominee Will Swenson, who in his role of Tick/Mitsy, seems a tick bit confused. The story revolves around Tick's journey to see his son from a previous marriage. When the boy finally starts asking questions about his Dad, a drag queen by profession, his mother (and Tick's secret ex-wife) decides that the two should meet. She suggests that Tick should resurrect his old drag show for a two-month run in her casino. He gathers up his pals Bernadette and Felicia, they hop in Priscilla, a worn out old camper, and journey across Australia. That's a pretty risky and potentially emotional situation, if you ask me. Not so much for Swenson. His Tick wades through shallow waters with no discernible personality or feeling. I certainly he hope he gains some necessary empathy during the show's run.

And then there was Nick. Nick Adams has been playing mid-sized roles on Broadway for several years in shows like A Chorus Line, The Pirate Queen, and most recently as a cagelle in La Cage Aux Folles. His casting is nothing short of perfect, but his delivery sure is. Like Swenson, he whitewashes his character to such an extent that he becomes quite boring. His signature sparring with Bernadette comes off as tame, and his implied romantic chemistry with Tick is removed altogether. I was very disappointed as Adams was without a doubt the standout ensemble member of La Cage.

Speaking of which, the ensemble (thankfully) is crammed full of energy, fun, and enthusiasm. A variety of body types and sizes also makes them particularly interesting to watch and tremendously likeable. Apart from a purposeless, audience-involving Act Two opening song, they are always warmly welcomed.

Bryan Thompson's set is just about pixel for pixel the same as it was in the West End, although in the Palace Theatre, it feels slightly crowded. The completely realized, rotating camper, is astoundingly well crafted, and Nick Schlieper's ability to light it is nothing short of awesome. Jonathan Deans' sound design intelligently knows when we are experiencing a concert and when we are watching a play. But with all this technical wizardry at work, no one even approaches the brilliance of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner's costumes. The duo won an Academy Award for designing the film's costumes in the early 90's and they are sure to bring home a Tony for the stage adaptation. Just imagine a stage full of life-sized, rotating, decorative green cupcakes spinning during a rousing 'MacArthur Park'. Yeah, I know.

If what you are looking for is no-strings-attached fun, then you should have vacationed in Times Square twenty years ago. But prostitution jokes aside, Priscilla offers plenty of fun, but it could offer so much more - a true affecting experience that stays with you beyond the doors of the theatre. All theatre should strive to do that, but Priscilla falls way short in this effort.

Who is the blame? The creative team or the audience? To borrow a phrase, it takes two to tango. The producers surely thought mainstream American audiences would not welcome three drag queens into their hearts, so they imposed changes that make it impossible for us to try. But even in the few moments of honesty that this production has to offer, those sitting around me just laughed in discomfort. Sadly, the whole situation speaks volumes about where American culture currently stands, and where together we must go.

Which is why I ask...
Priscilla Queen of The Desert, why did you 'Go West'?
You were safer back east.

Priscilla Queen of The Desert plays at The Palace Theatre on Broadway