Roger Ebert has a very particular method of reviewing films: using a four-star rating system, he judges movies on how they merit given the context of their particular genre. For example, within his system, American Pie is given the same rating as The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, as they both succeed within their genres equally.
It occurs to me that many people will see Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and decide that it’s too shallow, too showy, and has far too much confetti for them to enjoy it. But to view the show this way is to miss the ride, no pun intended, and perhaps some attention should be paid to Ebert’s method of critiquing a work. Priscilla exists simultaneously as an exuberant musical as well as a send-up of the structure, much in the way real drag queens both idolize and mock the female singers they so precisely (and viciously) impersonate.
Set to a bewilderingly motley jukebox score, running the gamut from I Will Survive to Pat Benatar’s We Belong, Priscilla is silly, rowdy fun, never falling too deep into its own plot (there barely is one). So, yes, the show is all glitter and flash, and that is exactly what it wants to be.
Based on the 1994 movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the story centers around Tick (a superb Will Swenson), who’s the “straight man” only in the sense of being the most deadpan of the group. Tick has a second rate drag act in Sydney, but upon learning that his young son – the result of a secret marriage to a woman named Marion – wants to see him, he manages to convince his two friends to join him on a road trip to the middle of nowhere, where Marion runs a casino. In his last Broadway outing, Hair, Swenson was all scruff and attitude, oozing masculine sensuality. His about-face in Priscilla is impressive, and he handles it well.
Joining Tick on the road trip is Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), a post-op transgender woman who’s something of a drag queen Obi-wan Kenobi. Bernadette is getting on in years and worried about where her life is taking her, and Sheldon shines in the most emotionally honest part in the show. Rounding out the trio is Felicia, played by AfterElton.com favorite Nick Adams, who for the second time in recent memory proves that, despite being built like a bodybuilder, he looks surprisingly good in a dress. (He was last seen on Broadway in La Cage Aux Folles.) Adams has a seemingly limitless energy onstage; just when a normal person would have exhausted themselves spitting out bitchy quips and belting out Madonna tunes, Adams leaps into the air and lands in a split.