PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Boas in the Van

By Harry Haun
21 Mar 2011

Buy this Limited Collector's Edition

Without the services of C. David Johnson — providing a little romantic interest for the needy Bernadette — the show might have looked like a long episode of "The Golden Gays," with too much girly interplay for its own good, but Johnson mans up to the assignment. "Here is a guy who comes from a world of intolerance, and he just lets his heart be his guide," the actor said. "I admire that about him."

Only one of the three female divas who hover over the bus and belt out things like "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" or "Material Girl" — Ashley Spencer — made it to the party. The other two were either on Diva Standard Time (fashionably late) or they were still twisting in the wings trapped in their visually seamless aerial gear.

But you can bette the diva making her Broadway debut producing something other than one of her own shows was in conspicuous attendance.

Bette Midler made her entrance in a solid mass of masses who moved along with her as she was led by Ken Sunshine, her longtime publicist and first-time co-producer. How these two veterans turned virgin producers is a good story.

"About a year and a half ago," said Sunshine, "I was with Bette in London, and she met Jimmy Nederlander, who said, 'You gotta see my show.' And we did. We saw Priscilla, and at intermission, to get away from the autograph fans, we slipped into a room at the theatre, and she started giving these brilliant notes. I said to her, 'You'd make a good producer some day.' I told that to Jimmy, and the two of them worked out a deal. Then Bette called me and said, 'I'm going into this. Why don't you go in, too?' I said, 'I'll match you. Whatever you put in, I'll put in.' Right after I said it, I thought, 'Omigod, what did I do?' That's how I became a producer."

He's finding it a refreshing change of pace. "I grew up in New York. I've been going to Broadway all my life, and I've worked on Broadway shows — but never at this level. It's different — a different set of characters. I've worked in the political world, the musical world, the film world for so long I know the cast of characters, but I've never met a big shot that's as nice as Jimmy Nederlander is. Most of the big shots who've made it in film, music or politics are not nice. They're not decent. He really is."

Audra McDonald showed up in support of Swenson, her sometimes 110 in the Shade co-star (he was her Starbuck understudy on Broadway and her Starbuck for-real in Utah), but otherwise she was singing the blues: Terrence McNally, to whom she owes half of her four Tonys (Ragtime, Master Class), is having an all-star salute from The Acting Company on March 28 at the Longacre, and she won't be able to participate. "They're making me work on 'Private Practice' that day so I can't get out of it. We were hoping could, but I just found out they're not going to let me do it. I'm really disappointed." She can't get out of television quick enough. Her first stage sighting will be in Boston as Bess in a new Porgy and Bess, directed by Hair's Diane Paulus and adapted by Topdog/Underdog's Suzan-Lori Parks. "I'm looking forward to it. I feel like I'm old enough."

J. Elaine Marcos and C. David Johnson
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Pearce, the film's original Adam/Felice, was a little nonplussed about seeing the picture replayed as a musical. "It was a very strange experience, I have to say," he had to say. "I've been avoiding seeing the stage show now for over a year. I knew eventually I would see it, and to see it on opening night in New York is very thrilling — and, obviously, to see my old friend, Tony Sheldon, up on stage was a very special thing for me. We did the Paul Rudnick play, I Hate Hamlet, many years ago for the Melbourne Theatre Company. He was John Barrymore, and I was the boy.

"Tonight was an absolutely wonderful experience. It certainly brought a tear to my eye. Obviously, I bring a lot of personal baggage to my experience of watching it." In light of his recent performance of Edward VIII in the Oscar-winning "The King's Speech," it's not pushing it to point out he has come from queen to king. He laughed and added, "And I may slip back to queen every now and then. Who knows?"

Actress and acting coach Sondra Lee was unsettled at the party by the stare of a silver-haired stranger, who eventually approached her and said, "My name is Barbara Foy [of Flying by Foy]. My husband flew you in Peter Pan."

It was a grand night for making A Fashion Statement. Feather for feather, there were more boas at the party than you shake a boa at, and there was a lot of that going on.

The local drag sorority, the member of which have cooled their heels since the La Cage aux Folles opening night last spring, came out in full force. In no particular order, we saw Vanity Fair, Courtney Act, Flotilla DeBarge, Bianca Del Rio and Sherry Vine.

Glittering as well: Jacki Weaver, the Oscar-nominated Aussie actress of "Animal Kingdom"; soap star/producer Kevin Spirtas; comedy writer Bruce Vilanch (last seen at the Palace scripting a Midler show); producer David Bender; conductor Patrick Vaccariello; Kathleen Turner, enjoying a night out before she starts previewing High on Friday; Shrek's Daniel Breaker; TV host Scott Cohen; Chicago-bound Christie Brinkley (as Roxie); Joan Rivers, of course; Jerry Mitchell, who "supervised" the production, whatever that means; Renee Zellweger; the inimitable Charlotte Rae; "Precious" director Lee Daniels; House of Valentino's Giancarlo Giammetti; Manolo Blahnik president George Malkkemus and Zac Young. Some arrived two by two: Tovah Feldshuh and Andrew Levy, celebrating their 34th wedding anniversary with a show; Roger Rees, who's trying on Nathan Lane's big shoes for The Addams Family and Peter and the Starcatcher's Rick Elice; fresh from tweaking their previewing Catch Me If You Can, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman; The Post's Cindi Adams and The View's Barbara Walters; and Palace kingpin Stewart F. Lane and fellow producer Bonnie Comley.

Bizzaro was the dress code of the night. One man wobbled into the Palace in a nicely tailored suit, offset by stiletto heels. Another displayed a tux-and-tutu combo. But the nosegay for the sequinest person of the evening went — with no serious rivals — to the show's assistant costume designer, whose suit consisted of a solid sheet of sequins. No nuns went blind during the making of this suit, he vowed. "I did it."