Kind of a drag: Priscilla Queen of the Desert at DSM
High camp: Mae West in a feather boa in She Done Him Wrong. Low camp: Jamie Farr in a dowdy dress on M*A*S*H. Camp adjacent: Every cock in a frock in the mock campy Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical, whose national tour is now at the Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park.
The 2011 Broadway adaptation of the 1994 movie sure loses a lot of what was special about that fun little film. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (oh, comma, how we miss you) was a sweet, whimsical road picture, made for a few million Australian dollars, about two drag queens and an older transsexual bumping across the Outback in a candy pink bus. Along the way they bitch, bond and boogie to vintage disco tunes and, upon their arrival in Alice Springs, perform a lavishly costumed lip-sync act at a casino showroom. Subplots have one of the guys, Tick (drag name "Mitzi"), meeting his 6-year-old son for the first time; and Bernadette, the trans-lady, falling in love with a roughhewn old Aussie bloke.
As a piece of big-budget (thought not quite big enough in some areas) musical theater, Priscilla on the stage isn't as elegant or well-scripted as La Cage aux Folles (think about that for a second), nor as self-referentially goofy as the similarly disco-fluffy Xanadu. It's more like Mamma Mia! meets RuPaul's Drag Race and goes Greyhound. With pit stops at grim gay bars where the jukeboxes haven't been updated since Madonna had her original face.
With an anemic, laugh-free book by Stephan Elliott (who also wrote and directed the film) and Adam Scott, the musical sort of follows the action of the movie. Trouble is, you've got yourself a show about three people on a bus. So there's a bus onstage, twirling around, decked out with sparkly lights and open on one side to see what the passengers are up to as they fake-drive across an invisible Oz. Here's a bit of dialogue from one of the inside-the-bus scenes: "You're sweet." "You're sour." That's stale. Another: "You're as gay as a Mexican tablecloth." OK then.
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The much funnier film cleverly combined bitter banter with whimsy and pathos, and had a great soundtrack that complemented the eye-popping cinematography. We got startling smash-cuts between the garishly made-up drag queens (played onscreen by Hugo Weaving as Tick/Mitzi, Guy Pearce as Adam/Felicia and a staggeringly good in drag Terence Stamp as Bernadette) and, say, a fat lizard on a sun-baked rock. We got stunning shots of sunsets over Australian deserts and dramatic views of the rattletrap pink bus chugging down long stretches of drab, dusty highway. Those visual metaphors helped tell the story of how isolated the characters felt in their world. The movie was about their individual journeys, not just the one to Alice Springs.
All that spectacle and the metaphorical messages now are telescoped and dumbed down to fit on the stage, and the result is tatty and soulless. It's also ugly and not even in the enjoyable ways that low camp can be. The touring production is surprisingly light on scenery and what's there is tacky and balky. (On opening night, stagehands had to run on stage and rescue some wayward doohickies that didn't move where they should have.) The bus, turning this way and that in every number, gets old fast. As do the projected images onto and around the damn bus, all designed by Brian Thomson, who believes there are saguaro cactus sprouting up all over Australia, which there aren't.
The only successful holdovers from the film's design elements are the over-the-top drag show costumes, again created by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won an Oscar and a Tony for their work. The orange and pink mini-dress made of rubber flip-flops, the glittery cheerleading outfits, the Sydney Harbor gown — all there on Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette as they stomp through the mostly-from-the-waist-up choreography by Ross Coleman (recreated for the tour by Joshua Bucher).
Too often in this Priscilla, however, the complicated costumes and towering wigs are wearing the performers, with the leads shouting their lines and pulling faces. They don't even get the Aussie accents right.
Playing Tick, Wade McCollum, star of Dallas Theater Center's Cabaret a few seasons back, can do more than this silly show requires of him. He's a fine singer and dancer, but here his character gets to do little of either. He mostly has to move his lips to the live singing of three "Divas" (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson, Brit West), who descend from the rafters on wires to wail about shaking their groove things or how they love the nightlife, but it's raining men all over the cake someone left out in MacArthur Park.
As the nasty-tempered Adam/Felicia, Bryan West bounces and wiggles through a Madonna medley. He's cute enough. Scott Willis looks an awful lot like Lauren Bacall as Bernadette, especially in the white pantsuit. He can throw off a putdown with excellent timing, too. If only the writers had written him some good ones.
In her seminal 1964 essay "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag wrote, "Camp which knows itself to be camp is usually less satisfying." That pretty much sums up Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical, which tries so hard to be classically, comically campy that it comes off flat and forced. Like its make-believe bus, it's just spinning its wheels.
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