Review: “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”

Bottom line: Big-party theater, splashy, cheerful (and safe)

When/Where: Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway

'Priscilla' gives a cheerful ride on stage

Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon and Nick Adams and

Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon and Nick Adams and the cast of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert Musical," at the Palace Theatre in Manhattan. (Credit: Handout/Joan Marcus Photo)

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'Excuse me, class coming through," says Bernadette as she calmly clears a path through the toughies in the tavern in the Australian Outback. And even if she has to say so herself, the woman knows what she knows -- which means that we want to know, too.

The lady in question is embodied by the wonderful Tony Sheldon, a veteran of Australian theater, who has been wearing almost-dignified frocks and the confidence of Lauren Bacall through the five-year trip of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" to Broadway.

There is much to enjoy in this spectacular-looking, stubbornly-sentimental, disco-throbbing jukebox adaptation of the edgier 1994 indie-film hit, especially in the stronger second act. But the real heart-throbbing lurks in Bernadette, the been-there, done-that transsexual of a certain age and her marrow-deep shadings of wisdom and wise foolishness.

Bernadette is one of three disparate drag queens who drive a bus named Priscilla into the wilds far from Sydney to play a gig -- and, more to the point, to reunite the gender-ambiguous Tick with his young son.

The feel-good story is loaded (OK, a little overloaded) with good cheer, as is the cast -- including an altogether endearing Will Swenson as the sensitive Tick and a hard-hitting (at times, too hard-hitting) Nick Adams as the over-the-top young Adam, aka Felicia.

But enough about story, which has been co-written and honored by Stephan Elliott, who wrote the film. As directed by Simon Phillips, the aim of the production (coproduced for Broadway by Bette Midler) is big-party theater with a side message of tolerance. Despite a tendency to hit the jokes too hard, the show floats along on a lovable bus of beaded lights, tropical interior and bushels of shredded Mylar.

The costumes, by the movie's Oscar-winning Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, are riots of bell-bottom outer-space jumpsuits and ostrich feathers, with a chorus of dancing cupcakes for "MacArthur Park" and dancing paint brushes for "I Will Survive." Felicia worships Madonna but still lip-syncs "Sempre Libera" from "La Traviata" on a giant sling-back slipper on top of the bus. Brainstorms in footwear -- swim flippers with heels, platform saddle shoes -- are especially fabulous.

For reasons unknown, three (biological) women sing mostly backup while hovering over the action on ropes. J. Elaine Marcos admirably replicates the film's fantastically tasteless novelty number (with Ping-Pong balls). For the most part, however, the only danger in the feather-happy show is to the ostriches.

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