Directed by Simon Philips
Music Supervision & Arrangements by Stephen “Spud” Murphy
Choreography by Ross Coleman
Presented by Broadway in Chicago at the Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University
This garish jukebox musical based on the 1994 cult classic film is overproduced kitsch.
Almost twenty years later, Stephan Elliott’s cult-classic film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is arguably one of the great works of LGBT cinema. The story of three drag-performing friends as they make their way across the Australian outback in a bus named Priscilla, Elliott’s heartfelt movie is all about having the courage to let one’s inner glamour illuminate an otherwise sterile and lifeless environment.
But what made Stephan Elliott’s original film so compelling was its subtle juxtaposition between the (often purposely grotesque) glamour of its would-be starlets and the arid desert of the Australian outback—the subtle intimation that even beneath the uproarious costumes, the glittered lipstick and the synthetic disco-beat, there was still something wrinkled, vulnerable, ugly and perhaps even a bit colorless.
Unfortunately, this kind of nuanced irony has no place in Elliot’s jukebox musical adaptation, which has retained the the film’s basic plot and character, though not within first hollowing them of anything emotionally honest, sincere or real. Even worse than being campy, it’s “campy.” A hyper-conscious pillaging of the celluloid closet, Priscilla manages to drag out (no pun intended) every petrified gay fetish of the past forty-five years: Madonna, Judy Garland, Donna Summer. You name it. No sacrosanct figure of gay iconography goes unreferenced and unexploited. Susan Sontag famously described camp as “esoteric”—a kind of “private code…among small urban cliques.” Well fifty years later, with a majority of Americans supporting gay marriage and homosexuals less intractably relegated to the closet, this kind of campy “doublespeak” already feels regressively passé.
And with wholly uninspired choreography and an awkwardly realized staging to boot, no amount of frenetic energy (or provocative muscle flexing) on behalf of this male-heavy cast can turn the tide in Priscilla’s favor. Wade McCollum as the charmingly self-effacing Tick at least has the right mixture of incredulity and lightheartedness toward the material. But Scott Willis as the warhorse Bernadette looks and sounds (rightly) underwhelmed, as though struggling to soldier through Priscilla’s inanity. And Bryan West’s turn as the over-eager young Adam has plenty of spunk but rarely gets beyond his character’s one-note punchline.
The costumes of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (which won both an Oscar for the original film and a Tony for Priscilla‘s initial Broadway run) are immaculately constructed pieces each but tend to overwhelm the otherwise blah-nothingness happening on stage. In the film, their bizarrely distorted (almost clown-like) look generated an uncanny dissonance against the backdrop of the rustic outback; but here on stage, they amount to little more than a garish parade, pale imitations of La Cage‘s coquettish humor and the spectacle of Ziegfeld’s Follies. The set design somehow manages to look both over-produced and lazy. Seemingly built from pipe cleaners and a metric ton of mylar streamers, its sole function is to hide the eponymous bus, Priscilla, glaringly adorned with a grid of LED lights reminiscent of a Times Square “spectacular.”
Yet I suppose its luridly overdone production design is the closest Priscilla comes to actual camp. Like a drag queen who genuinely believes her own tinsel-laden illusions, Priscilla is more often than not only “playing” a good time. Desperate to keep you from noticing the wrinkled clichés beneath all the makeup or how its only ever lip-syncing someone else’s tunes, Priscilla blinds you with tasteless spectacle, gaudy costumes and enough bitchy “shade” throwing for an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
But Priscilla isn’t fooling anyone. Dress it up however you like. It still doesn’t sing…
Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Wednesday, March 20th, 2013.
Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical runs until March 30th, 2013. The Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University is located at 50 East Congress Parkway. Tickets can be obtained by calling the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at (800) 775-2000, by visiting any of Broadway in Chicago’s Box Offices, or at their website (www.BroadwayInChicago.com). Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/priscilla-queen-of-the-desert/5684/.