Imagine La Cage aux Folles crossed with Rock of Ages and a dash of Mamma Mia! and you’ll get some sense of what awaits you at Broadway’s latest jukebox musical extravaganza, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Based on the 1994 Australian movie about three road-tripping drag queens, this production boasts a score of super-familiar disco and pop hits and some seriously show-stopping costumes designed by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won the Oscar for their work on the film and are safe bet to pick up a Tony this June. You might recall that Gardiner wore a self-made dress of Gold American Express cards to the Oscar-cast and her designs for the on-stage Priscilla are just as delightfully eye-catching and colorfully hilarious.
The book, by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, is a thin road-trip yarn centered on Tick (Hair‘s Will Swenson), who agrees to belatedly visit his bizarrely understanding ex-wife (Jessica Phillips) and their button-cute 6-year-old son (Luke Mannikus and Ashton Woerz rotate in the role) in the middle of Australia. Since he can’t afford a plane ticket, Tick decides to road-trip it in a bus with two fellow drag performers, the older grande dame Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and a younger, bitchier Adam (La Cage aux Folles‘ Nick Adams). Along the way, the trio encounters the usual assortment of Aussie-fied rural hicks and roughnecks, plus a couple of shameless scene-stealers: Keala Settle as a mullet-haired bar owner with a private yearning for passion and J. Elaine Marcos as a mail-order bride with an unusual, R-rated talent.
The nylon-thin plot is mostly an excuse to set up the classic tunes on the soundtrack. As fans of Glee know by now, there’s a certain pleasure in the truly unlikely segue. It’s natural for Tick to begin ”Say a Little Prayer” seated at the mirror: ”The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup…” But you can imagine the narrative lengths to which the creators must go to introduce Jimmy Webb’s ”MacArthur Park,” which memorably begins: ”Someone left the cake out in the rain.”
Needless to say, the show is campier than a tentful of Boy Scouts (working on their choreography merit badge). And there’s a dance-party atmosphere that helps compensate for the show’s plot implausibilities and clunkier moments. Among the three leads, Adams seems the most solid and comfortably over the top as a bratty young provocateur. Sheldon is not the strongest singer, but brings some touching pathos to his role as the aging diva. The weakest element is Swenson, who seems a bit ill at ease as Tick/Mitzi (and the actor’s shaky accent often seems closer to Eton than Australia).
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-982-2787)