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

By Harry Haun
March 21, 2011

Meet the first-nighters at the opening of Broadway's Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

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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.

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Tony Sheldon and Nick Adams
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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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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."