Priscilla, which is writ large and in sequins on the cover of the opening-night Playbill, is the name of a pink bus carrying three Sydney drag queens back to their gnarled, arid roots in Australia's Outback, far from the razzle-dazzle hurlyburly of their natural habitat.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical — to use the full royal title of the show that just parked March 20 at the Palace for what promises to be a very long stay — is a moving violation in the homophobic eyes of frontier denizens along the way, with its shocking-pink effrontery and brazen "Rear Entrance Upon Request" bumper-sticker.
Can you imagine it? If you can't, you ain't on the bus. As road trips go, this one is tantamount to waving a red (pink, if you insist) flag in the face of intolerance, of which there is beaucoup beyond the anything-goes city limits and suburban buffer zones.
A bumpy night is had by all, but it's not unpredictable or entirely unprecedented. This trek was previously mapped out and joyfully executed by the same-named 1994 sleeper flick from Down Under, with Hugh Weaving, a career-rejuvenated Terrence Stamp and Guy Pearce going where no men have gone before. Now, 17 years later, we have Will Swenson, a career-rejuvenated Tony Sheldon and Nick Adams following their leads.
The reason behind this dangerous frolic into The Land That Civility Forget is this: It seems one of the guys, Tick-turned-Mitzi (Swenson), has a six-year-old son he has never seen, and his ex insists on forcing a meeting so he packs up his two best drag-buds — the aging and newly widowed Bernadette (Sheldon) and a young trouble-making hard-body, Adam/Felicia (Adams), and off they go, outcasts in the Outback. As Fate and scripters would have it, the ex operates a casino where Tick can more or less have his coming-out party to his son by performing a drag act with his friends. This is the exact polar opposite of the big emotional moment in A Chorus Line, where parents discover their son is a drag star. Times change.
The trip is not without incident and never without music. Not only is the van painted pink, it's drenched steadily and digitally in all the other rainbow hues as it chugs determinedly along, piling up kangaroo-and-koala roadkill as it goes. Eventually, it starts to resemble a jukebox, which is not inappropriate considering the vintage bill of fare blaring forth; it spans decades and spins everyone from Madonna and Pat Benatar to a couple of Dionne Warwicks heard earlier this year five blocks away at the Broadway Theatre in Promises, Promises.
Simon Phillips, who delivered Priscilla to the Palace five years after he directed its first-ever workshop in Australia, had the relieved look of a man who had reached journey's end when he arrived — blissed-out, smiling broadly, almost giddily — at the after-party which was splashed all over Pier 60 at the Chelsea Piers.
"I've changed a lot for Broadway," he readily admitted. "I've shortened the show by about 25 minutes, and I've switched some songs — 'Americanized the score,' if you will. Madonna's taken the place of Kylie Minogue, who's popular in London and Australia but not really known in this country. She went. Visually, it was always this flashy. It always had plenty of bang for your buck. It's a huge show, technically, and what's happening backstage is even more amazing. There are just so many costume changes, so many things going up and down in the air. It's a spectacle!"
There are, by actual inventory, 500 costumes in the show — most of these very left of outrageous and all of them betraying an advanced sense of fun. They are the work of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who copped an Oscar for costuming the film. You may even recall the American Express card gown, designed by Chappel for Gardiner, in which she accepted the award. More than anything, their Oscar was a reward for showing how much wit and imagination a limited budget of $15,000 can produce. Here — from the awesome evidence at hand — they were handed $1.5 mil and told, "Go. Play." Which they did with a passionate vengeance.
The other refuge from Workshop One is Sheldon, who brings a sweet grace and dignity to the transsexual Bernadette without sacrificing any of her spunk and humor. What's more, he didn't seem remotely over-rehearsed — and he certainly could have.
"This is my seventh opening night," he beamed with satisfaction. "By the time we left Toronto, I'd done 1,202 performances. I'm probably up to 1,220 or something now. "I love the character very much. It's a she. Of course, she has been living as a woman for most of her life so she thinks as a woman. I love the fact she had a very rich career behind her — she was a big star in her early, beautiful days — and has learned to move on with grace and put it behind her. She can look after herself in a scrap and still retain her film-star illusion of herself. She's really multifaceted. I adore her.
"Somebody said to me, 'This is your Dolly' — and it is. I never thought I'd become a star in a dress. I've never done a big drag role before so it's a total surprise to me that this is the show that took me around the world. I've never worked outside Australia before this, and I was quite happy not to. I was going to fly the flag there alone. My aunt, Helen Reddy, became an American citizen, and my mother [Toni Lamond] lived in L.A. for 20 years and did regional theatre and TV there."
And what got the boy out of the country? "To be playing an Australian role in an Australian-written-and-produced musical — that was the vehicle I was waiting for," he answered, "and it arrived. I had to wait till I was in my mid-50s, but I got here."
Swenson got here with a quick change of pace, from Hair to Wig, and there's virtually no carry-over from the rambunctious, out-there Berger he played in that tribal-musical revival last season to the withdrawn, sensitive Tick he plays here.
"It was interesting to me that the character is so divergent in so many ways," said Swenson. "On one hand, he is fabulous as a drag performer, and on the other, he's a troubled, almost closeted absentee father. I just thought it challenging to reconcile these two diverse personality traits in one person and make him believable."
Gyrating through vintage disco is pretty draining, he allowed, "but it's like therapy, y'know. You go to therapy, and you come out drained, but you feel so much better. Theatre is a great way to work out your frustration. You get to do it on stage. Maybe it's a little twisted to do it in front of thousands of people, but it's really fulfilling."
Adams, who's taking a big step out of the chorus and into featured-lead land, got to the party in peak pec form but in a state from his exuberant opening-night workout. "I'm running on adrenalin. I'm sure I'll crash later tonight, but it was such a high."
He's happy his role of Adam/Felicia let him make the leap. "I love what it requires of me as an actor and the choices I've been able to make with it. I like all aspects of musical theatre. I get to sing and dance and act. That's all I wanted to do as a kid, and this is the perfect role to do it. This show even makes me feel like I might be funny."
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