Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Kind of a Drag: 'Priscilla' a Fun Ride, but Stops Short of Fantastic -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 30

Before I explain why I don't think Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is as good a stage musical as others do, I think it only fair to note that prominent among those "others" is my friend Paolo, with whom I saw the show Tuesday night--as part of our Broadway in Chicago series--and also had attended a performance in London in November 2011.

Paolo saw Priscilla five previous times in London over a two-year span, happily accompanying friends and relatives to repeat viewings of a show he obviously loves.

And while the U.S. Tour of the Broadway version is a bit different from the London production--primarily in some of the dance-infused hit songs it utilizes--Paolo still found it to be terrific.

As he sees as many musicals as I do and has discerning taste, his fervent recommendation that you see Priscilla is no less valid than my more lukewarm one. And many in the impressively filled, cavernous Auditorium seemed likely to agree with him.

But my take on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, based in Australia and on a 1994 movie revolving around two drag queens and a transsexual who travel on a bus named Priscilla--which is eventually painted pink--from Sydney to the remote resort town of Alice Springs, is essentially the same as when I saw it in London (where I gave it @@@1/2 within this piece).

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
The premise of Priscilla is fun--and so is a good deal of what takes place on stage.

The three main characters--Tick/Mitzi, Bernadette and Adam/Felicia--are accompanied by three female divas, an impressive full-size bus, a large company, live orchestra, a major second act character named Bob and enough glitz to impressively fill the spacious Auditorium stage.

I'll leave plot specifics for you to uncover via the musical or the movie, but Tick (a.k.a. Mitzi, played by Wade McCollum) is veteran drag performer who is motivated to make the trip for a show in Alice Springs, and gets Bernadette--a transsexual (played by Scott Willis)--and Adam (a.k.a. Felicia, a Madonna-loving performer, at least in the U.S. version of Priscilla, where "Material Girl," "Holiday" and "Like a Prayer" are incorporated, unlike in London) to come along. Adam/Felicia is played by Bryan West.

Though there is certainly some meaning and emotion behind the dialogue and narrative, much of it is middling, interrupted every few minutes by a big production number of a pop/disco hit from the late '70s or early '80s, including "Go West" (Village People), "I Love the Nightlife" (Alicia Bridges), "Colour My World" (Petula Clark; this one's from the 60's), "I Will Survive" (Gloria Gaynor), "Shake Your Groove Thing" (KC and the Sunshine Band), "MacArthur Park" (Donna Summer) and "Boogie Wonderland" (Earth, Wind and Fire). There is also, a bit obtusely but all the more enjoyable for it, an opera aria performed by Felicia, as well as more plaintive versions of "True Colors" (Cyndi Lauper) and "Always on My Mind" (Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson).

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
These songs and others are all sung and played live, and although I'm not nearly the fan of pop & disco that Paolo is, it was hard not to smile at the melodies and exuberance on display.

The big musical numbers are not the problem with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and--thanks too to some terrific costumes--are actually the primary reason that I would recommend this show, although not above The Book of Mormon and other choices in and around Chicago.

If you're just looking to have a good time with some friends over 2-1/2 hours, assuming the above rundown of the show and its music appeal to you, Priscilla really should make for a fun night out.

It's just not--IMHO--theatrically fantastic, nor even as good as it should be within its own shtick.

First of all, and perhaps I should see this as a sign of societal progress (at least in Australia), but the ostracism and bigotry Mitzi, Bernadette and Felicia face on their road trip comes across as relatively minor. Yes there is some ugly graffiti painted on Priscilla at one point and Adam/Felicia is roughed up by a Neanderthal in a bar, but I never really felt much pathos for the often more covert hatred and intolerance that members of the LGBT community must endure and overcome.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
In other words, the "book" of Priscilla (credited to Stephan Elliot & Allan Scott) seems a bit suspect. For the most part, it just feels like a fun road trip, not a celebration of following one's own, at times challenging, path.

In terms of musicals about drag queens and/or gay pride, both La Cage Aux Folles and the recent, soon-to-open on Broadway Kinky Boots, are considerably better--and more powerful statements.

Also, as I noted after seeing Priscilla in London, I suspect the ability to secure song rights likely dictated some of the creative choices, but there were nonetheless a few blown opportunities that flattened the show for me.

Near the end, when the trio arrive in Alice Springs for their big performance, there should be the grandest production number of the night; I would suggest a blow-the-roof-off-the-joint rendition of Chic's "Good Times" or perhaps "Stayin' Alive" from Australia's own Bee Gees.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Instead, there's a gimmicky production number--cute, but old fast--followed by a brief reprise of "It's Raining Men," sung in full by the trio of female divas earlier in the show.

And as Tick/Mitzi, Bernadette and Adam/Felicia later belt out Pat Benatar's minor 1984 hit, "We Belong," I couldn't help but feel that Sister Sledge's much more seminal, "We Are Family," would have been a far better choice.

If your main goal is to make the audience shake their groove things, at least do it right.

Which, to be fair, in large part Priscilla, Queen of the Desert does. It's a good show, which some think is great. They're not wrong, no more than I am right, but heck, I offered Paolo the opportunity to write this review.

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