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By Bill Hirschman
Critics anxiously wait during a show to spot a quintessential moment that will encapsulate the dramatic arc, key character development or overarching theme central to the production.
In the national tour of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it’s “MacArthur Park.” No, really. It’s that Richard Harris/Jimmy Webb ballad from 1968 whose meaning no one had the vaguest idea about unless they were dropping acid.
The point of the number injected into this anarchic musical is that it has no point. The creators of the show knowingly and gleefully mount a balls-out hallucinogenic production number that intentionally does not advance anything and does not connect to anything but a prop dropped into the plot as an excuse to include this song.
With a band blaring brass and bass, the audience is treated to a corps de ballet decked out in oversized green cupcakes and three-foot tall headdresses looking like lit birthday candles. (“I left the cake out in the rain, all the sweet green icing flowing down,” remember?)
It’s just an extravagant, downright silly and infectiously entertaining hoot. And that’s the defining moment of Priscilla, a gay fantasia – as in Disney’s Fantasia – playing at the end of the month to the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
Even when you can’t understand the lyrics – and we’ll come back to that – Priscilla is usually a phantasmagoria for the senses if not the mind. It’s not a triumph of flash over substance because the meager substance tossed in for appearance’s sake (nods to homophobia and fatherhood) never stand a chance.
Priscilla is an excuse for a pair of drag queens, a transsexual and their friends to strut for two hours through a Ziegfield Follies fashion parade of 500 of the most outrageous and indescribable costumes while lip-syncing or belting disco anthems and Swingin’ Sixties pop hits. A lot has been written about these Tony-winning designs by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, but they have to be seen to be appropriately appreciated, especially the mile-high wigs and plumed headdresses that defy description.
This 2006 musical which played Australia, London and finally Broadway is based on the slightly more serious and less flamboyant 1994 film hit, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert written and directed by Stephan Elliot who co-wrote the book for the musical.
This edition is drenched in gay wish fulfillment with buff dancers stripping off gorgeous glad rags until they’re left in gold lame briefs that barely qualify as a jock strap. But an open-minded audience will find nothing objectionable; they might enjoy themselves if they let themselves go. Okay, there is the female stripper who pops ping-pong balls out of her…well….
The show opens with a Greek chorus of R&B divas flying in to lead the company in deafening renditions of “It’s Raining Men” and “What’s Love Got To Do With It?,” apparently the floor show at a club in Sydney, Australia.
Not that it matters, but the plot begins with the a drag queen, Tick (dba Mitzi), fielding a phone call from his estranged wife (female) who needs Tick to bring a show to her struggling casino in middle-of-nowhere Alice Springs. An added incentive is the chance for Tick to meet his six-year-old son for the first time.
Tick enlists a mouthy, immature and super-talented performer Adam (aka Felicia) and a recently-bereaved transsexual, Bernadette, a veteran of a fabled but defunct 60’s drag show. The three pop into a bus nicknamed Priscilla for a circuitous road trip into the outback to the gig. Along the way, they get sidetracked in two backwater burgs where they mix with the rural locals with varied results. But eventually they get where they’re going in time for a fabulous finale.
The giggles in any of these shows is seeing how the creators imaginatively insert numbers from a composer’s songbook or a genre into the thin framework of a plot that seemingly has nothing to do with the score. Scott Elliot, co-writer Allan Scott and their team here happily climb into the sandbox. For instance, Tick sings a heartfelt “I Say A Little Prayer,” but crooned to a photo of his son. We also get “I Love The Nightlife” sung at a goat roper bar, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” sung at the disco version of a jazz funeral, plus “Shake Your Groove Thing” and “Material Girl” in similar straits.
And would you be shocked, just shocked that the first act finale number celebrating the trio’s rescue from the desert is “I Will Survive?” Still, you might be surprised that the rescuers include a guide dressed up an Aborigine leading a clutch of Scottish kilt-wearing tourists.
Totally unheralded, and maybe that’s notable in itself, is that none of the characters are struggling with their sexuality. No question, they all have and will play a price in an unwelcoming world. But they have graduated past gay lib pride and are simply luxuriating in their lifestyle.
Opening night at the Arsht, Tick was played by understudy Chris Klink subbing for Wade McCollum. Even when wearing a dress made of Day-Glo painted flip-flops, Klink exuded a whiff of normality and sanity to this trio. But anything would have seemed normal compared to the wonderfully over-the-top exuberance of Bryan West as Felicia whose dream is to perform Madonna tunes standing on a rock in the desert in drag. West nailed showstopper after showstopper including a weird number in which he gesticulated wildly while lip-syncing to an aria from “La Traviata” while riding atop a massive silver spiked heel shoe.
If anyone was actually acting, it was Scott Willis who conveyed the wistfulness of an old trooper who disdains singing in favor of the tradition of only lip-syncing with the precision and grace of a geisha. In Willis’ performance, Bernadette’s every arm motion, every dance step was imbued with style.
The choreography was adequate, mostly mimicking moves from the disco period. The set design and lighting veered from profligate yet imaginative to chintzy and cheap.
On the down under side, do you know the words to “It’s Raining Men?” Good, because you’ll never understand them or most any of the lyrics through about 75 percent of the first act. One performer, Nik Alexzander as Miss Understanding, was completely unintelligible singing or speaking. How much of this was the actors’ enunciation, the laid-on Australian accents, the criminally unbalanced sound design that let the orchestra drown out the singers or just the Arsht acoustics was a mystery to lay folks. But was there no sound check?
The good news acoustically is the live band under Brent Frederick is dead on in the groove, although it’s likely they could be heard inside the American Airlines Arena five blocks away. We note “live band” because the Broadway show was embroiled in a dispute over the use of a pre-recorded orchestra.
Priscilla is just a ball of fluff, but it’s a glitter ball of fluff held aloft proudly by a queen in high drag atop sky-high platform shoes while strutting in a sequined gown and belting in a raucous claxon that apologizes to no one.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert runs atthe Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Boulevard, West Palm Beach, from April 23-28, 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets $30-$78. Visit kravis.org or call 561-832-7469 or 800-572-8471.
For a video interview with costume supervisor, click here.