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There’s no ABBA turd in the Broadway version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In fact, in transporting Stephan Elliott’s beloved 1994 film to the stage, Elliott and co-book writer Allan Scott completely scrubbed reference to the Swedish dance-pop darlings, replacing them with Madonna.
And that’s the funny thing about Broadway. The Great White Way can take something you love, change it in a way that seems suspicious – Did ABBA deny them permission or something? – and then win you over anyway.
No doubt, Priscilla will win you over in a big way. It’s not the best musical you’ll ever see – neither the story nor the music is original, for starters. But it just may be the most endearing, and possibly the most fun you can currently have at a Broadway show.
If nothing else, your smile muscles will be sore as you walk out of the large Palace Theatre. As in the movie, the story here is that of a gay man meeting his young son and reconnecting with his ex-wife. She’s hired her ex-husband and his fellow Sydney-based drag performers to put on a show in the sticks of Australia. The story follows the girls as they travel through the Australian outback, confronting homophobes and thugs along the way.
But never fear: The tough and tender moments are far outnumbered by those providing sheer delight, joy and bawdy humor, not to mention spectacle. From Ross Coleman’s rousing choreography to Brian Thomson’s over-the-top sets to Nick Schlieper’s fantastical lights, the production team goes all out in making sure you walk away dazzled. Not to mention covered in glitter. (And hopefully you’ll be untouched by the projectile ping-pong balls.)
It’s a bit puzzling that only the costume designers got a nod for a Tony. Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s work here is, in fact, every bit as high-camp and awe-inspiring – Halloween-inspiring, too – as the costumes they designed for the film. And every bit as worthy of an award. (They won an Oscar for the film’s costumes.) But probably the most stunning aspect of the entire show is the rotating LED bus, which displays a rainbow of colors, and serves as a scene-chewing backdrop for most of the production.
Priscilla also failed to nab Tony nominations for its spot-on chipper cast, save for Tony Sheldon, who plays transsexual character Bernadette with oodles of sweetness and sensitivity. Meanwhile, Keala Settle all but steals the show performing just one number (”I Love The Nightlife”) as a rural pub’s ugly tomboy Shirley, who doesn’t like the visiting drag queens one bit. Settle’s brief, bravura performance is the stuff of legend.
The show’s music comes straight, so to speak, from an ’80s-era gay man’s jukebox, heavy on disco and early dance-pop: Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Thelma Houston, Pet Shop Boys, Donna Summer. I said it was fun, right? Say what you might about Priscilla lacking in originality. You can’t deny its audience-pleasing charm. It’s got real heart.
MOVING FROM the desert to the possibly divine, it certainly seems blasphemous to create a musical outwardly spoofing one religious group and its sacred text. Ultimately, however, The Book of Mormon will speak to anyone, of any denomination or faith, who’s ever tried to believe in a higher power – as well as those who actually do.
From the creators of South Park and Avenue Q, Book of Mormon focuses on a group of Mormon missionaries as they try to convert a hard-knock tribe of Ugandans, who’ve all but given up on religion. (They repeatedly sing a popular, Lion King-spoofing chant, ”Fuck You God.”) The show’s naive, white-bread, gay-yet-repressed American Mormons are ill-prepared to win over such hardened skeptics. They only break through when the bumbling Elder Cunningham, played by the riotously funny Josh Gad (Comedy Central’s The Daily Show), goes ”making things up again,” in this case wildly adapting Mormon scripture to fit the modern African context.
The season’s most-buzzed about musical, sure to rake in a good portion of its near-record 14 Tony nominations, The Book of Mormon tackles religion and belief in a pretty remarkable way. We humans seem to have an ingrained need to believe in something, anything, even if so much of what we’re told to believe doesn’t make sense. Therefore we doubt. Creators Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone explore this conundrum while offering no easy solutions, in the process actually sidestepping the musical tradition of offering concrete resolution. ”This is sort of what God is going for,” goes a common refrain about leaving things open for interpretation. And so they effectively do.
The Book of Mormon drags a bit in the second act, most notably with ”Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which becomes a sci-fi abyss. And the trio’s music and lyrics are both catchy and cute, but not entirely clever and certainly not groundbreaking. The musical is a real ensemble piece, with an across-the-board strong cast. As Nabalungi, the Ugandan girl who so desperately wants to escape her rough life she’ll practically believe anything, Nikki M. James just may break your heart. The production team is also universally up to snuff, though Scott Pask’s work with scenic design seems to stand out a bit more than the rest.
At times, it almost looks like the promised land.