Shows have done a lot of nutty things over the years to show an audience that their $127 is well spent. Priscilla‘s thing is sequins. And feathers. And glitter. Splashed across the stage by the bucketful over at the Palace Theatre, where Priscilla opened on March 20, the effect is kind of awesome. And headache-inducing. But no amount of glitz, in this case, can create a suitable diversion for the show’s glaring blemish—that it’s not all that great.
Based on the 1994 film—sentences that start that way can never end well, I know—the show follows three drag performer friends as they take an allegedly zany road trip across Australia for reasons that kind of don’t matter, so I won’t recount them here. The show’s creators really want them to matter, of course, and they also really want you to focus on how MADCAP and FUN the proceedings are supposed to be, except that they stop being fun as soon as Will Swenson’s character sings “I Say a Little Prayer” as an anthem of longing for his young son.
Yeah, scratch your head over that one for a minute. Shoehorned into the show as its EMOTIONAL TOUCHSTONE, I think we’re supposed to make all kinds of associations with this song that stem from important/meaningful events in our own lives and therefore be deeply moved. I was just kind of confused, and frankly, I think Will Swenson is, too. Because when we saw Priscilla, the song was greeted by the audience with a bemused smattering of laughter. Ouch.
In fact, there are no original songs in Priscilla. Designed for maximum FUN and FAMILIARITY, the “score” is more or less an iTunes playlist of jaunty 70s and 80s pop and dance hits, which is fine, except that I don’t really need to pay a shitton of money to hear my Power Walk mix in a Broadway show. Also, Adam Guettel exists and there are way better pop songs out there than “I Love the Nightlife.” Those two distinct realities mean that Priscilla’s score should just be… better. Or at least try harder.
Still, though, I think this show is just supposed to be FUN. As opposed to say, SUBSTANTIAL. And it has its moments and performances that won’t make you want to die alternately of boredom or sensory overload. Tony Sheldon, who comes to Broadway from the London production, plays aging transexual Bernadette with a real sense of pathos—a much-welcome thing after being walloped in the face with all that glitter. And while Nick Adams will probs not win any Tonys here, his abs (all 23 of them) should qualify for some special prize.
The costumes, too, deserve a mention, partly because they want one so very badly, and partly because they actually deserve it. Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s creations—from dancing cupcakes to Adams’s fully-bejeweled bodysuit, to minidresses made entirely of flip-flops—do, in fact, live up to the show’s promises of EXTREME UNBRIDLED FUN. The closing number, featuring the chorus done up as the flora and fauna of Australia (including what has got to be the most adorable kangaroo costume ever) is a stunner. If only the story and the songs could make your eyes/ears/brain take notice in the same way.
Photo: Joan Marcus