01 June 2011

‘Priscilla,’ the Musical ... Sort Of

Like the movie, the stage show depicts three drag entertainers
who cross the Outback in search of fulfillment.

Twenty-five years after my once-in-a-lifetime adventure with the Broadway musical Rags, I’m often nostalgic for that rare breed, the musical-comedy artist. In Rags, I was surrounded by men and women who could with dazzling aplomb sing, dance, joke, emote, and (in the case of Gabriel Barre) juggle and walk on stilts. At last I understood why Kurt Weill wanted to write Broadway shows instead of opera when he came to America: only in this medium could he explore the full range of his artistic ideas, because these actors could do anything he asked of them.

Broadway has changed since Weill’s day, and it’s changed since Rags. What’s left of the old street, anyway? Amid the amusement-park attractions, can a performer today still do what the old timers could? A visit to the current hit, Priscilla Queen of the Desert (based on the popular Australian movie, from 1994), gave me some answers: while I’m encouraged by the performing, I’m uneasy about the state of the art, simply because there really isn’t much of a musical in this show.

I had misgivings about attending at all: the Broadway Musicians’ Union, Local 802, is protesting (but not picketing) Priscilla, which uses recordings (on synthesizer) instead of live string players and other pit personnel. My friend pointed out that, since we were buying our tickets via the lottery (held shortly before each performance at the Palace Theatre), it was as if we were depriving the producers of money, and so our consciences should be clear.

In the event, it wasn’t the orchestration so much as the songs themselves that troubled me. Priscilla is a jukebox musical, offering a broad selection of pop hits from the 1970s and ’80s, one after another. This is true to the nature of the original film (featuring Abba songs that are presumably off-limits ever since Mamma Mia! began its interminable run down the street, ten years ago) and to the nature of drag shows, as well. But the relevance of song to scene is sometimes scant indeed, and frankly, when I attend a Broadway musical, I’d like to hear a Broadway score, even a mediocre one.

How much more interesting it might have been if, for example, Priscilla had torn a page from Bob Fosse’s film of Cabaret, contrasting scenes of the stage (which might have used those pop standards) with scenes of the characters’ real lives (which might have used original songs)? Sure, it would be tough for most Broadway composers these days to come up with anything as catchy as Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and moreover the audience wouldn’t bring to the new song any prior associations. But that’s a challenge, not an obstacle.

I needn’t have worried about the performers themselves. As they cavorted across the stage, I never for a second doubted their conviction: if Priscilla is not the greatest show ever written, the cast doesn’t seem to know it. Really, they’re spectacular. A trio of Divas belts out the hits, and a lively ensemble portrays multiple roles with skill: they never stop moving (and in some cases, flying). We even get an old-fashioned star turn from Tony Sheldon, as Bernadette (the role played by Terence Stamp in the movie), in which the performer’s unique gifts are gratefully shared with us.

Tony Sheldon as Bernadette

Following (or perhaps creating) a more modern template, Nick Adams has risen from chorus boy in other shows to co-star of this one not least on the strength of his devoted following on the Internet, who have been ogling his beefcake for a couple of years now. (Think of this phenomenon as 42nd Street 2.0.) His musculature is gorgeous, it’s true, but he’s also got bona fide song-and-dance chops, and for more than leering motives it’s satisfying to see him in the spotlight.

The most difficult assignment falls to the nominal leading man, Will Swenson, as Tick, the role played in the film by Hugo Weaving. Weaving was the least conventionally attractive of the movie’s three stars, but Swenson is (to my eyes, anyway) the most conventionally attractive of the men onstage, and in a show that’s all about outward appearances, it’s harder to sympathize with him in what is ultimately a sketchily written part. Tick gets the fewest snappy lines of the central trio, and even a phantasmagorical account of “Macarthur Park” didn’t afford him the kind of let-er-rip number that helped to define his co-stars. Nevertheless, Swenson was up there acting and singing and dancing for all he was worth.

Nick Adams, as Felicia, in the “Sempre libera” scene.
The staging delivers moments we remember from the film —
far beyond our expectations.

So was everybody else. I simply wished there had been more to sing about. While Priscilla isn’t quite the transplanted Vegas lounge act or anonymous entertainment machine that so many other Broadway shows are today, it nevertheless fell short of its impressive ingredients. The costumes (by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner) are riotous fun, the eponymous bus (by Brian Thomson) is clever and surprising, the choreography (by Russ Coleman) exhilarating and often ingenious. The show hits the notes we expect from the movie we remember, and in many ways, it’s constructed like a good old-fashioned book musical. Only the music is lacking.

That said, the audience around me clearly had a terrific time. But I kept dreaming that some day soon, all these wonderfully talented people might get to put on a real show.

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