There is a moment in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical” when all would not necessarily be forgiven as much as it would be forgotten.
The garish but somehow innocuous musical now at the Community Center Theater aspires to be no more than fluff and fun with just a bit of sentiment on the side. It’s not a terribly high mountain to climb, yet “Priscilla” doesn’t quite get there, and the moment it all rolls back downhill is with Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park,” which has been gerrymandered into the plot.
The oft-covered, sometimes ridiculed four-part cantata was first recorded in 1968 by Richard Harris, and has always been one of the most unlikely pop hits (Glen Campbell’s epic version is one of the best) though Donna Summer’s 1978 disco remake is likely being referenced here.
The song, featuring punchy horns, sweeping strings, dramatic flourishes, florid poetry and harpsichord, has an epic sweep with its surrealistic lyrics of lost love and melodramatic trauma (“MacArthur Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet green icing flowing down, some one left the cake out in the rain, I don’t think that I can take it, ’cause it took so long to bake it”). It’s perfect for parody, or even better yet, an honest, heartfelt recreation. What we get here is hard-working actor Wade McCollum, powering through an uninspired production number featuring a few awkward cupcakes dancing with umbrellas.
So goes most of “Priscilla,” an incredibly busy but still lazy jukebox musical that only packs a punch when it’s being crass, which, in the lexicon of the production, supposedly equates with fun.
Based on the 1994 movie, the musical follows the same story line with a trio of drag performers – two gay men and a transsexual woman – road tripping across the Australian desert from Sydney to Alice Springs in a bus named Priscilla. The pretext for the trip is that actor McCollum’s character, Tick, was once married to a woman, and they had a son whom Tick has never seen. The 6-year-old wants to see his father, and vice versa, so Tick and his two bickering pals set off on the adventure.
Will the son accept his cross-dressing father? Will the ramshackle bus make it across the outback? Can the warring friends reconcile? Do drag queens wear extra false eyelashes?
If it sounds by the numbers, that’s because it is. The creators (Stephen Elliot and Allan Scott wrote the book, Russ Coleman created the choreography and Simon Phillips directed) are counting on the sweat equity of their game performers, the good will of generous audiences and an awful lot of outrageous costumes to carry the enterprise along.
Well, it’s something to see, but very little to feel, even though we’re meant to feel a lot. Tick, who’s known as Mitzi on stage, of course has the precious father-and-child reunion at end of his journey, while the aging transsexual Bernadette (Scott Willis in charming performance) is just looking for love, which she might have found. Bryan West’s caustic, naughty Adam – also known as Felicia – simply wants to inhabit Madonna’s glory days and be a part of something.
Along the way they sing a bushel of dramatic ballads (“I Say a Little Prayer,” “True Colors,” “Always on My Mind” ) and disco-flavored hits (“Don’t Leave Me This Way,” “I Love the Nightlife,” “Shake Your Groove Thing”). But despite solid performances throughout the cast, the songs barely connect emotionally to the thin threads of plot.
What we’re left with are some crazy wigs and more than 500 Tony Award-winning costumes, which get crammed into the production numbers, although half of those seem to come during a show-ending tableaux and the curtain call. Perhaps “Priscilla’s” original ethos remains intact – drag queens are just like the rest of us (with bigger closets) – but this story about friendships, family and the desire to belong deserves to be about more than just the clothes.
PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT