It seems such a waste to option a screenplay for musicalization and then create a jukebox musical around it, but that’s exactly what the Australian creative team behind Priscilla, Queen of the Desert did. On the other hand, having recently learned what I have about how the support and development of new musical theatre writers is in such dire straits outside of the United States, it’s also not surprising. Absent the opportunities for genuine training and development, something like Priscilla seems an inevitable enterprise. And indeed one could decide to be charitable and call the approach a metaphor for the lifestyles of the show's central triumvirate of showbiz drag queens, who make their livings doing onstage routines to pop recordings.
The story is thin enough not to overly tax the functionality of a jukebox score by straining context, and that is, of course, both good and bad. Tick (Will Swenson), whose onstage star persona is Mitzi, receives a virtual command from his ex-wife (Jessica Phillips) that he needs to travel cross country to meet the young son he has never known (Luke Mannikus). Fortunately, she owns a casino and invites Tick to do a show there. (If the motivation to achieve the goal sounds a tad fuzzy—it is. There’s no real threat of loss, and thus the deadline lacks urgency. It is in details such as this that musicals actually need to improve upon their source material, because focus and clarity—to say nothing of dramatic tension—hang so much on details like these. It may be significant therefore to note that both librettists—Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott—are primarily screenwriters, and that Mr. Elliott wrote the original screenplay for Priscilla.) So, Tick/Mitzi enlists the aid/support of middle aged, mothering drag queen Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and the muscle-bound flirt and troublemaker Adam/Felicia (Nick Adams)—who will perform the show with him, recreating their days as a high Octane trio—and acquiring a bus they kind of convert into a mobile home (the Priscilla of the title), they hit the road.
While Priscilla has been vastly successful in all three English-speaking continents one needs for a trifecta—in the cities of Sydney & Melbourne (Australia), Auckland (New Zealand), London (England) and Toronto (Canada)—I nonetheless found its Broadway debut (which imports the recent Canadian company wholesale) to be over-emphatic and underwhelming. But that’s not really the fault of anything but the basic concept. Direction (Simon Phillips) plus musical direction, choreography, performances, scenery and etc. all work overtime to keep the evening high enough aloft to escape too much scrutiny from below.
The staple pop songs are familiar and performed with the requisite glitz and glitter, the gay-camp humor is what it (always) is, and whether or not you metaphysically go on the ride with the draggy trio depends in large measure upon your tolerance for this kind of thing—though I hasten to add, Priscilla’s is not a low-rent, downtown sensibility. It’s a gay-camp show that seeks to be inclusive of a general audience, and in that respect it largely succeeds. Again, if you can get with it.
I must add, while I very much liked Tony Sheldon’s turn as the maternal Bernadette—the role he created in Sydney and has re-created in every city the show has played since—it didn’t strike me as the iconic interpretation it’s cracked up to be. Certainly it doesn’t come anywhere near what Harvey Fierstein is doing as Albin not two blocks away in his own La Cage Aux Folles. Curiously, the best thing in the show for me was the performance of C. David Johnson as Bob, the friendly and unexpectedly enlightened auto mechanic the trio encounter on the road, who—with the show’s single, and admirable, beat of restraint and understatement—becomes Bernadette’s love interest. Johnson, a veteran of the long-running Canadian lawyer, drama series Street Legal (which made him one of the first acknowledged Canadian TV stars Up There for a time) evidences stage wattage one might not have expected from his lower-key performances on the tube, and even more suroprisingly, a natural ease as a musical theatre performer. I’m not sayin’ he sings like a boid—mostly he just carries a tune—but he’s a charactefr man worth the attention of the Powers That Be here in NYC. If he wants it…