Priscilla Queen of the Desert has all the shimmer and all the substance of a mirage. First things first: The costumes are sensational. Designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner won an Oscar for the 1994 Australian film on which this show is based, and will surely win a Tony for their work here as well. But when the costumes come first in a musical, that's a bad sign—especially when nothing comes second.
And nothingness really does seem a deliberate priority of this aggressively empty show. The movie includes a few joyful minutes of over-the-top camp spectacle in what is otherwise a character-driven comedy about drag queens on a road trip to an outback casino. But the musical reverses the ratio, losing the plot in a crowd of glitzy production numbers of hit pop songs from the '70s and '80s. It's a giant disco ball of a show, with countless tiny mirrors that gleam and flash but permit no genuine reflection.
Will Swenson plays Tick, who performs under the mystifying stage name of Mitzi Mitosis and who has a young son, Benji, from a previous sexual confusion. (In one of Priscilla's few clever touches, Tick sings "I Say a Little Prayer," with its lyrics about putting on makeup and dresses, while thinking about Benji.) It is the boy's mother who books Tick to perform at the casino, a gig for which he recruits two fellow gender illusionists: Bernadette (Sheldon), an aging transsexual; and Adam (Adams), a.k.a. Felicia, a bitchy show-off with a penchant for Madonna.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is specifically a story about three gay men alone together in a vast rural landscape that is both dangerous and liberating. But the musical conveys little sense of this isolation, because the trio is constantly surrounded by magical fabulousness. A gag line about "MacArthur Park" mutates into a full performance of the song, cooking up chorus boys as green cupcakes; when our heroines' bus (which they have named Priscilla) is vandalized with an antigay slur, dancing pink paintbrushes wash the pain away.
The musical numbers alternate between outr kitsch and go-go exhibitionism—the American production has been supervised by Broadway Bares impresario Jerry Mitchell—and they have a tawdry floor-show brio. But the dynamism is eventually depressing, because it is so cut off from feeling. Trying to be Mamma Mia!, La Cage aux Folles, Beauty and the Beast, Dreamgirls, The Full Monty and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang all at once, the show has no room for itself. Bad-taste jokes come out of nowhere and land with ugly thuds; stabs at sentiment (such as Tick's reunion with Benji) and drama (such as an unwatchable gang-rape sequence) are inadequately set-up, and seem garish.
The show is as busy as a hive of bees, and its queens are slaves to the drone. Swenson is miscast and uncomfortable; out of his depth in a shallow role, Adams has huge biceps but underdeveloped charisma. (His massive guns misfire in a scene that asks him to pass for a woman in a sleeveless frock.) Only Sheldon seems like a human being; a veteran Australian actor who originated his role on the musical's previous stages, he gives Bernadette a rueful sense of humor and modest dignity that the rest of the production has no use for.
Encountering this version of Priscilla is like running into a sweet, sensitive, funny gay man you once knew but who has since turned into a steroidal party boy. Who is behind this sorry transformation? The film's writer-director, Stephan Elliott, cowrote the musical's book with Allan Scott; Mitchell's influence can be felt in the work credited to director Simon Phillips and choreographer Ross Coleman. But if I had to make a guess, I would look to the layers of fine print above the title.
The Playbill for Priscilla has 27 bios for actors and 27 separate bios for producers. This is Broadway by committee, and synthetic to the core. "We are living in a material world," sings the muscle-bound Felicia in a number added to the American version; it's a parody of Madonna's parody of Marilyn Monroe's parody of a gold digger, but somewhere the joke has gotten lost. The Broadway production also interpolates Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors," which takes nerve. Priscilla Queen of the Desert has colorful artifice to spare—those costumes!—but nearly nothing about it rings true. It throws the movie's soul under the bus.—Adam Feldman