News Column

'Priscilla' packs a visual punch

October 3, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 03--If bus loads of sequins, feathers and frills -- plus tons of camp -- were enough to make a great musical, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" would be "Carousel," "West Side Story" and "Sweeney Todd" combined.

For all its splashy accouterments, however, "Priscilla" falls short on essentials -- namely, a compelling book with credible characters and a distinctive, theatrically effective score.

But if the tour of the recent Broadway production -- now at Hobby Center -- doesn't rank all that high as musical theater, as a combination drag extravaganza and karaoke festival, it takes the cake (the one left out in the rain, no doubt.)

"Priscilla" combines two prevalent trends -- jukebox show and movie transplant -- which, however beneficial at the box office, have been detrimental to musicals artistically.

Based on the 1994 Australian film, "Priscilla" closely follows its story. Tick, a Sydney drag performer suffering some sort of midlife malaise, agrees to his estranged wife's request that he travel to faraway Alice Springs to meet the 6-year-old son he's never seen. With the deal sweetened by the chance to present a show at his wife's casino, Tick recruits worldly wise, recently widowed transsexual Bernadette and drag performer Adam, a cocky youngster with a lot to learn, as companions for the journey through the outback. Along the way, naturally, all learn lessons about getting along, braving adversity and self-acceptance.

The book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott revels in broad stereotypes and obvious humor -- a mix of hoary old jokes ("no need to pack, the bags are all under my eyes") and intentionally tacky bits, such as the subplot involving pingpong balls, best left unexplained. The characters are presented as such cartoons that when they suddenly go all earnest, it doesn't quite work. Despite some calculated heart tugs, the scenes are mostly uninvolving. Whether our heroines are facing down intolerance in a backwater dive or slinging random bitcheries on the bus, it all seems like filler till the next big production number.

For its score, the show employs a melange of pop hits -- mostly disco era, but ranging beyond from Dionne Warwick to Madonna. As the songs were never meant to advance a narrative or reveal character, they don't accomplish much in that regard. Indeed, the juxtaposition of song to situation is sometimes so awkward (perhaps intentionally) that it draws laughs: Tick crooning "I Say a Little Prayer" after talking to his son, "Don't Leave Me This Way" as a mock lament for the funeral of Bernadette's lover. Like the book, the songs don't dig deep enough.

The numbers chiefly serve as spectacles stressing movement, gimmickry and elaborate production values -- often suggesting music videos of the same vintage as the songs. No denying they're flashy, eye-catching and frequently inventive -- even if more and more alike as the show progresses. Give director Simon Philips credit for keeping the "Priscilla" bus rambling along, albeit bumpily, sprinkling clever visual touches. Ross Coleman's choreography is sufficiently kinetic, at times frenetic, that one winks at its essentially formulaic nature.

The outrageous and wildly imaginative costumes designed by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner are the production's greatest asset -- a show in themselves. Brian Thomson's ingenious scenery and the eye-popping light show by Nick Schlieper and Jonathan Spencer also are key contributions to the show's visual impact.

The three stars all sing well, move well and, for all the script's half-baked emotional crises, manage to project some of the heartache behind the glitter. Scott Willis conveys Bernadette's gritty hauteur and hard-won dignity, flashes of gallantry and wisdom shining through her sarcasm. Wade McCollum, as Tick, shows the confusion and self-doubt lurking beneath the tough, independent exterior. Bryan West makes Adam callow, mischievous and impulsive, good-hearted for all his insensitivity.

Joe Hart is solid as affable mechanic Bob. Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West demonstrate considerable poise, as well as vocal prowess, as an airborne trio who fly in and out on wires -- though their lyrics are sometimes hard to understand (likewise the chorus). The entire cast performs with verve, precision and game good humor -- and it can't be easy to dance up a storm in some of those enormous costumes.

Flash trumping substance, "Priscilla" may be the apotheosis of the drag aesthetic.

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(c)2013 the Houston Chronicle

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