Priscilla Queen of the Desert opened on Broadway last week following wild success in Sydney, London and Toronto. It’s easy to see why its been met with such good reviews–the show is a wildly good time with a good story and fabulous songs.
The story, of course, comes courtesey of the 1994 Oscar winning film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which chronicled the exploits of three drag queens as they traveled in a bus across the desert from Sydney to Alice Springs. Along the way Tic reveals that he’s married and has a kid, which is why they are headed to Alice Springs. Bernadette is looking for love. And Adam…well he just needs to grow up a bit. The trio entertain the masses in the outback, run up against some pretty nasty homophobia (which they take care of in quite fabulous ways) and meet some crazy characters.
The stage show keeps this story in tact and creates some very nice, touching moments for Tic and his family as well as Bernadette. The music choices are well integrated into the show too. Many songs from the movie work their way in, including: “Go West” (which included some characters dressed as the Village People), “I Love the Nightlife,” “I Will Survive,” “A Fine Romance” and “Shake Your Groove Thing.” There’s also a healthy dose of Madonna (“Holiday,” “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Prayer”).
One of the things I love about the show is how it tweaks songs to fit the usage. “I Say A Little Prayer” becomes a ballad about a father’s love for his son showing how Tic always has Benji in his thoughts. “MacArthur Park” (the Donna Summer version is one of my all time favorite disco songs) gets split into two. Bernadette uses the verses as a love song and then Tic comes in and turns the choruses into a fabulous drag number with dancing cakes. Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” becomes a great anthem of friendship between the trio and the end of the journey.
My only regret in the song selection is that “I’ve Never Been to Me” didn’t make the Broadway cut. It was in the film and also in the Australian version of the musical. The song is a guilty pleasure and I would’ve liked to have seen it staged.
The creative team did a great job considering that at least half the show takes place on or near the Priscilla the bus. It’s tricked out so the cast can move around and perform inside while the roadway scoots by on the outside. Plus, once the bus is painted a fabulous pink it works as a backdrop for even more surprises. This is also the most sparkly show I’ve ever seen. There must be hundreds of thousands of the led lights on the stage. Even the scene where Adam is on top of the bus is sparkly silver drag performing to opera is re-created for the stage. It is spectacular.
Casting is spot on. Tony Sheldon reprises his role of Bernadette from the Sydney, London and Toronto companies. He’s done the role over 1,200 times now and he is fantastic. Will Swenson, who I last saw in Hair, embraces his drag persona and also finds the right touch to be dad too. Nick Adams as Adam is the breakout in the show. He’s had parts recently in the revivals of La Cage Aux Follies, A Chorus Line and other shows. In his first Broadway lead role he is outstanding. He belts Madonna songs like they were his own and his take on “Hot Stuff” was fantastic. He is also pretty incredible to look at.
There’ve been some comparisons to Mamma Mia with this show. I suppose that’s to be expected since both shows use popular 80s music to tell their stories. However, Priscilla soars over Mamma Mia because of its story. In Priscilla a good story took the priority, using the foundation that was set in the movie then they found songs that fit in. With Mamma Mia it seemed like they forced story around the songs and that made for a subpar book. I’ve never felt the urge to see Mamma Mia a second time, but I’d go back in a heartbeat to make the desert trek with the Priscilla company.
Here’s a look at the greatness happening on stage at the Palace Theatre: