The adventures of two drag performers and a transsexual colleague, lip-synching their way across the Australian Outback in a used schoolbus that they baptize Priscilla, made an entertaining movie back in 1994. Inevitably, drag having become a near-universal media commodity in the Internet era, somebody thought it would make an entertaining stage musical. And Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Palace Theatre) does indeed entertain, though the result may make you, like me, feel that there is such a thing as too much entertainment. Priscilla’s producers, eager to please, have pulled out all the stops in the glitz department: No gown goes unglittered, while the titular bus, covered with tiny computerized beads, changes color so many times that you wonder why they bothered to include a scene in which the characters supposedly paint it.
The rainbow bus is just one of many effects underscoring the contradiction between Priscilla’s media-centric heart and its efforts to tell a sincere story. The three drageteers, all variously down on their luck, are heading for Alice Springs to play a gig in a nightclub run by the ex-wife of their ringleader, Tick (Will Swenson); she wants him to come home and meet the now-10-year-old son he abandoned when he came out and headed for Sydney. But even this and other sentimental episodes are presented chiefly in showbiz terms: Tick bonds with his son at the end, and proves his manliness, by imitating Elvis. There’s never any offstage in Priscilla; everybody’s always “on,” and usually so are the flashing lights, the moving scenery, and the three silver-clad female diva-commentators who start the show (like the Three Ladies in Mozart’s Magic Flute) by descending from the flies—while singing, contradictorily, “It’s Raining Men.”
As that song choice suggests, the ancient disco-era tunes from which Priscilla’s score is compiled at least have the merit of belonging to the time when the story ostensibly takes place. Their familiarity matches the story’s familiar base-touchings, and the high-powered but now equally familiar repertoire of moves, gestures, and tricks with costumes, lighting, and musical arrangements. It’s all exhaustingly well done. Swenson, Tony Sheldon as the tranny Bernadette, and Nick Adams as the success-hungry Adam, a/k/a Felicia, throw more heartfelt energy into the evening than many of us could muster in a year. I enjoyed myself, but what I most wanted, when it ended, was to sit someplace quiet for several hours.