I really, really wanted to like this.
I finally saw Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and while I am tempted to say it's a good thing it's got such a big cast 'cuz it's broken, I decided to approach my post on it in a different way. I think of this show as more of a Vegas-style revue than a Broadway musical, very much in the style of the far worse Mamma Mia!, so instead of "reviewing" it in a highly structured way and going all guns blazing, I'm just going to "revue" it:
And best of all, Keala Settle as grizzled Shirley (in a scene that more than passingly reminded me of "Mr. Cellophane" from Chicago) and J. Elaine Marcos as "mail-order bride" Cynthia are phenomenally funny, taking tiny roles and making them not only entertaining but fresh. To put this into perspective—two real women managed to upstage a posse of men in drag.
The book is weak and devoid of something it badly needed—wit. I'd have to go back to re-watch the film, but even if some of the show's one-liners do appear there, a decade and a half later they were in dire need of sprucing up. I didn't laugh ever except for at Settle and Marcos, and the entire crowd was ominously unamused by the first act. (This changed dramatically by the end of the second act, after we'd been pepper-sprayed with feel-good moments and even invited up on stage to dance.)
The lip-synching vs. singing issue is awkwardly unresolved. It's unpleasant listening to the three leads singing as drag queens (who would want to own this cast recording?), but it's annoying that the show offers real women hovering above many numbers singing as the drags mime. One number, in which Bernadette begins to explain the difference between the old days of lip-synching and modern drag's alleged reliance on actual singing was ruined when she disappeared for half the song to change.
ABBA was an offbeat and personal-seeming obsession of Tick's in the movie—it wasn't until the movie made a worldwide impact that ABBA became everybody's go-to kitsch faves again. While I understand it would be a non-starter to use ABBA music with Mamma Mia! still playing down the block, the choice of replacing them with Madonna just does not work. Madonna is an obvious choice for any queen to admire, but the point is that it should be a quirkier artist. Even Kylie would have worked better for the U.S. (not for the U.K. or Australia, where she's as obvious as Madonna).
The song selections are uneven at best. Thumbs up to all the '70s numbers (which by the way received FAR better responses than anything '80s—I think this show is ideally suited for the 40+ crowd in that regard), but "True Colors" really and truly never needs to be performed again, "We Belong" is pretty weak for a drag queen to be singing and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" was just plain weird. None of the Madonna songs really felt properly used. "Like a Prayer" is tacked on at the end for absolutely no reason, and is performed in drag that has no connection to Madonna.
The costumes felt trapped in that '90s clubkid mode. I think the show really could have benefited from a When Pigs Fly approach with outfits that are in and of themselves funny and unexpected. (Oh, and Will Swenson is adorable but really fades into the background instead of being the show's emotional center, as he needs to be.)
While I didn't like it, the majority of the audience seemed to. If you like to drink, have a couple first and give it a try. After all, it's certainly not bringing anything evil into the world with its advertising that being gay—including in lamé—is A-okay. You may enjoy it if you take it for what it is...and don't take someone like me along with!
P.S. Pre-emptive reply to the inevitable, "You don't know how to have fun!" kinds of responses...I do know how to have fun, and this isn't it. For me. But if you like it, I'm happy to hear it and I hope you will support it and all people who are clearly working their asses off.