Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — The Musical is the hot ticket of the year. Everyone I know has either seen it, is going to see it or wants to see it. After you see it, you’ll understand why. For a spectacular night in the city, it’s unmatched.
I remember being impressed by the flying effects in Canadian Stage’s production of Angels in America years ago, but that was just one angel flying around. Priscilla has no less than three singing ladies descending, gliding and bopping around in the air. They’re greeted with a roar of appreciation before opening their mouths to sing, and they aren’t even the leads!
The show is well cast — so much so that it’s easy to forget that in the film, the queens are portrayed as so-so (check out YouTube for Terence Stamp’s lovably behind-the-beat dancing during “Finally” for proof). NYC heartthrob Nick Adams elicits squeals, original Bernadette Tony Sheldon gives a showbizzy take on the character, and, keeping in mind that it’s a pre-Broadway tryout, Canadians are well represented: yay for David Lopez, C David Johnson, Susan Dunstan and J Elaine Marcos, who are about to make their Broadway debuts! Much has been made about Thom Allison’s presence in the show — a beloved Canadian star performing as an understudy and in the ensemble of a US show rankles some, but Allison will finally be on Broadway, where he deserves to be.
Remember, there is pride in being an alternate or an understudy. Ask Brent Carver if he regrets signing on as an alternate in Kiss of the Spider Woman (a path that eventually won him a Tony award); ditto Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie. We all remember Shirley MacLaine in The Pajama Game, not Carol Haney, and on it goes. Besides, if we’re lucky, Allison will be tapped to head up the road tour!
I have fond memories of being 14, renting the Priscilla VHS for two weeks straight and staying up late after everyone else had gone to bed so I could watch it. The moments of dark humour fascinated me: little Adam’s revenge against his pedophile uncle, the ABBA turd and the phrase “AIDS fuckers.”
For better or worse, the show smooths out all the rough edges, while other moments are fleshed out (especially the early bar scene with Shirley). Still, I would have loved some original music. The classics are fine for the showy performance sequences, but in the quiet and tender moments, the audience titters for a few moments upon recognizing Cyndi Lauper or Dionne Warwick songs. Imagine “An Abba Turd” set to music, and you have the kind of show I was hoping for.
Outrageous, Brad Fraser’s musicalization of the movie, is also about drag and chosen family, but it relied on new material and a deliciously witty score. That it also happened to feature Thom Allison in a series of quick changes gave it a fresh element that distinguished the play from the movie. La Cage aux Folles, which Priscilla star Nick Adams recently starred in, also added glamorous production elements to an existing cinematic storyline but featured a romantic and stirring score to go with the characters. La Cage’s “A Little More Mascara” by lead queen Albin trumps Priscilla daddy Tick’s opening song “I Say a Little Prayer” for being specific to the moment and character.
Watching Priscilla, I kept hoping Bernadette would step forward and deliver a kind of “But the World Goes ’Round” lung-buster, or Adam/Felicia would sing about drugs. Although I am recommending the show to nearly everyone I meet, it’s on the basis of the design and the cast, not the dramatic structure. For all its fun, I worry that yet another show in the vein of Mamma Mia, We Will Rock You and Rock of Ages is harmful to audiences. I really hope that the past few years, which have given us musicals with pop hits, by-the-numbers books and mega-mixes of the most familiar tunes at the end, have not weaned us away from the enjoyment of experiencing something new and unexpected.