Priscilla just keeps on trucking. Australian Stephan Elliott transformed his tale of two drag queens and a transsexual on a bus trip across the Outback from a movie into a stage musical in 2006. After going over well Down Under and on London's West End, Priscilla's party bus is now parked in Toronto on an extended pit stop on the way to Broadway.
As with the film, the musical concerns Tick (Will Swenson), a drag queen who performs under the name Mitzi Mitosis, leaving the safety of Sydney for a gig in remote Alice Springs at the behest of his wife and their young son, whom he has never met.
Yes, though he is a drag queen, Tick's precise sexual orientation is tricky.
"I am what I am," he says, quoting another, more earnest drag musical.
Tick brings along two friends: Transsexual Bernadette (a dignified Tony Sheldon), who is mourning the death of her younger lover, Trumpet; and Adam, aka Felicia (Nick Adams), a rich, spoiled and talented drag artist with more muscles than a chorus line of Crocodile Hunters.
On their journey, Bernadette meets a melancholy mechanic (C. David Johnson), while Adam gets a change to fulfill his dream of singing a Madonna medley atop Ayers Rock. "That's just what this country needs: A cock in a frock on a rock," Bernadette says, in a line straight from the movie.
There's a reason why film has a whole road-trip genre, while theatre doesn't. What's missing in Priscilla the musical from the 1994 cult movie that inspired it are all those stunning outback visuals and the intriguing juxtaposition of natural, forbidding landscapes with unnatural, licentious drag queens. On Toronto's Princess of Wales stage in front of a boa-clad audience, that visual tension is not there: Tick, Bernadette and Adam are in their natural habitat, while the rural homophobes they encounter are the ones who seem out of place.
Their giant bus - named Priscilla - may be a very high-tech contraption, but no matter how much they primp this ride with fancy LED-technology, it can't give the musical the same sense of motion as the movie. Hogging centre-stage, it's a flop of a prop.
What more than makes up for that is the sensational super-sizing of the costumes from the Oscar-winning team of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. In the surreal numbers that keep breaking out, there are dancing paint brushes, a crass menagerie of kooky koalas and kangaroos, and a baking sheet of cupcakes which twirl to, for the most tenuous of reasons, a discoed-up MacArthur Park.
These costumes are more déclassé Disney than drag, but in the shows within the show, there is an interesting mix of drag. In a flashback, we see a younger Bernadette descending a staircase lip-synching to the Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields number A Fine Romance, accompanied by a flock of pink-clad showgirls in tall ostrich-feather headdresses.
Back in the present day, Adam performs a more sexual performance in which he sings as well as lip-synchs. He first appears dressed as Marilyn Monroe singing Madonna's Material Girl. Ross Coleman's choreography here begins with an homage to the Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, then turns into a raunchier romp with Adam leading several men around on leashes.
Other moments of visual ingenuity include wigs that turn into pom-poms and dresses that turn into puppets. The score includes a pinch of opera and country, but mostly it's repurposed dance hits, from It's Raining Men to I Will Survive to Hot Stuff, either sung by the characters or by a floating trio of high-haired divas (Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey and Ashley Spencer).
Priscilla tries very hard to create a fun, party atmosphere for its audience. Sometimes it tries too hard - as when confetti is fired out over the audience before the hero(ines) have even left Sydney - but mostly it succeeds in director Simon Phillips's exuberant production.
As for tone, Priscilla tries to have it both ways - to be risqué and safe. There are plenty of rippling male torsos and innuendo-filled jokes (notably one about a foreskin and a double-stuffed Oreo), but at the same time there isn't so much as a single man-on-man peck. Likewise, the script's sometimes misanthropic sense of humour (as in the callous funeral for Trumpet) clashes with the sticky-sweet sentimentality of Tick's reunion with his son. "The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer for you," Tick sings, slipping into a little Burt Bacharach, while his young son Benjamin (Luke Mannikus, alternating with Trek Buccino) walks by blowing bubbles.
It's a testament to Swenson's skilled acting that he eventual makes Tick's misgivings about being a father who dresses up in women's clothing connect with our hearts. There may be a lot of wishful thinking here, but there's no denying that Priscilla is infectious, giddy entertainment.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical
- Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
- Directed by Simon Phillips
- Starring Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon, Nick Adams and C. David Johnson
- At the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical continues into January.