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Priscilla Queen of the Desert

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Photo by Joan Marcus
Will Swenson (Tick/Mitzi), Tony Sheldon (Bernadette) and Nick Adams (Adam/Felicia)
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Review by Tulis McCall
(21 Mar 2010)

Cotton candy, that’s what this is. Spun sugar piled high with sprinkles and edible confetti and brightly colored shavings of multi-colored crunchy bits. And when you take a big bite out of it, it melts in your mouth so fast if feels as though there is nothing there at all.

What IS here is a spectacular performance by Tony Sheldon as Bernadette, the transsexual with class and a mean upper kick. After 40 years in the theatre Mr. Sheldon is making his Broadway debut, and we are a better community for it. True, he has been working this part for several years, but this Bernadette has aged like fine wine.

In case you have been living under a rock and don’t know this story – Priscilla is the tale of three gay men who have turned lip-synching into an art and added costumes that Lady Gaga would envy. It is the 1980’s in Australia and Tick (Will Swenson) is having a midlife crisis. How long can this go on? What is life all about anyway and why does he have no meaningful relationships? Well, not to make too fine a point of it, but he does have one tiny relationship that means a lot to him. He has a son, Benji, who lives in Alice Springs. Benji lives with his mother Cynthia and both are a secret from Tick’s gay friends. When he is offered a chance to bring a nightclub act to his son’s hometown he goes for it.

For his journey, Tick rounds up two friends – Bernadette of the Old School and Felicia (Nick Adams) of the newer, rougher school. This is a trio ill-matched in all ways, but united in their desire to get out of Dodge and find something new in life to cling to.

The boys acquire a bus, christen her Priscilla, and we are on our way. They hit the usual stops in the outback, get into fights, suffer mightily at the hands of frightened men, and make some odd friends.

On the way they sing everything from Burt Bachrach to Gloria Gaynor to the Weather Girls (I Say A Little Prayer for You, I Will Survive, It’s Raining Men). Sometimes they lip-synch, sometimes they sing and sometimes they are aided by three floating divas with knockout voices who, yes, hang in the air.

Nearly every song brings on the dancers who are the true heroes of this production. They have more costume changes than you can shake a stick at. And it is often the costumes that overwhelm each number because each number is pretty much the same as the last. Solo, duet, cue the chorus, adds the dancers avec costumes, big finish and cue the flashing lights! It happens over and over again until you get a little numb.

So this is why Mr. Sheldon’s work is outstanding in this evening. Amid a wash of noise and gaudy costumes, he alone captures a human being who has regrets and hopes. Will Swenson on the other hand appears uncomfortable in the extreme. He jitters around on the stage, over acting and indicating like mad. This might be appropriate for his character in drag, but not when he reads his son a bedtime story for the first time. His most unfortunate moment is the song MacArthur Park in which he looks completely lost, as if he were having an actor’s nightmare moment. Nick Adams lands somewhere in the middle – his Felicia is neither good nor bad, just very well put together and technically fine.

As an added bonus, Priscilla is giving drag queens a chance to dress up for the theatre, and we haven’t seen that since La Cage opened last spring. Mr. Sheldon brings mighty talent to Priscilla, but when you look around the audience and see a man in a denim shirt and blue jeans sitting next to another man in a blue satin dress and pearls, you understand that the real stories are sitting in the audience.


What the popular press said...

"Feels monotonous and mechanical... You are likely to feel slightly dazed and stultified, as if you’d been conked on the head with a disco ball. "
Charles Isherwood for NY Times

"Glossy costume party masquerading as a musical."
Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News

"It may look a bit ramshackle at times, but "Priscilla" has a big, joyous heart."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

"Raucously winning disco musical."
Jeremy Gerald for Bloomberg

"A peach of a physical production. Will probably received some critical brickbats from theatrical purists. But ..., "Priscilla" is a roaring good time."
David Sheward for Back Stage

"Sure, it has the same relationship to musical theater that anarchy has to politics. But, these days, you might as well take fun where you can find it."
Robert Feldberg for The Record

"Frankly, watching the show can be an exhausting experience — but this mountain of madcap frivolousness surely remains a sight to behold."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

"Joyous crowd-pleasing entertainment, raunchy humor, eye-popping visuals and unexpected heart."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

"This rollicking crowdpleaser in sequins nonetheless packs enough heart to leave the masses enthralled."
Steven Suskin for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Bloomberg - Back Stage - The Record - Newsroom Jersey - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

Production Details
Venue: Palace Theatre
Genre: Musical
Previewed: 28 Feb 2011
Opened: 20 Mar 2011
Closed: 24 Jun 2012
Writers: by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Director: Simon Phillips
Choreographer: Ross Coleman
Synopsis: Drag queen Mitzi, and friends Felicia and Bernadette make their own personal journeys of discovery as they go across Australia from Sydney to the outback, in a battered old bus named Priscilla, to perform their show - singing their way through disco songs.
Opening Cast: Tony Sheldon (Bernadette), Will Swenson (Tick/Mitzi), Nick Adams (Adam/Felicia), C. David Johnson (Bob), James Brown III (Jimmy), Mike McGowan (Frank), Nathan Lee Graham (Miss Understanding), J. Elaine Marcos (Cynthia), Jessica Phillips (Marion), Steve Schepis (Farrah), Keala Settle (Shirley), 'Divas' Jacqueline B. Arnold , Anastacia McCleskey and Ashley Spencer, as well as Thom Allison, Kyle Brown, Joshua Buscher, Susan Dunstan, Christopher Gurr, David Lopez, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Jeff Metzler, Eric Sciotto, Bryan West, and Tad Wilson.

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