Seen on Broadway: Move over, Cagelles; the “ladies” of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert are kicking up their heels at the Palace, five years after they began their hugely successful journey to the stage. The theatrical version of the 1994 film retains its sensational star, Tony Sheldon (who has logged some 1,200 performances to date as the old-school transsexual Bernadette), makes over some of its music for American tastes (Madonna in for Kylie Minogue)—and has by all accounts been made ever more fabulous for Broadway.
Well, OK, not by critical ones, with a number of reviews rapping the show for excessive production and minimal heart. To which I say, if you don’t go for broke with this material you haven’t got a musical, and the story of three Australian drag queens on a professional sojourn through the outback that becomes very personal has its share of intimate and touching moments, thanks to equally dynamic performances by Sheldon’s bus mates Will Swenson and Nick Adams.
To be fair, though, this is an instance where clothes make the men. Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner won the Oscar for their work on the film (you’ll recall her gold card dress) and have claimed every costuming award where the show has been seen. New York will be no different—there are dozens of stunning and hilarious outfits up there, in every possible color combination, and each number (the jukebox score has been aptly chosen) brings more. Eventually I stopped trying to catalog them and gave in; what took the cake, literally, were the green-icing concoctions for Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park.” Unbelievable, and I mean that in a good way.
These are, however, variations on an established theme. Taking Priscilla from the screen to the stage was more than just a matter of more, and more outrageous, costumes for director Simon Phillips and the company. There is, for example, the matter of Priscilla the bus. “She’s” very impressive when her plus-sized self trundles onto the stage, opens out to reveal a tropical lounge interior, and extends into the audience for a song. But scenic designer Brian Thomson has had her reupholstered for the 21st century. When the guys paint Priscilla to disguise a homophobic slur it’s not with Benjamin Moore—their brushes instead animate thousands of LEDs studding her surface, and from then on in Priscilla becomes a delightful scenic effect, generating color after color in sync with the music. Besides being eye-catching it’s certainly one of the more appropriate uses of this technology that I’ve seen.
I’m not meaning to slight lighting designer Nick Schlieper, who may very well have had a hand in this; he was certainly busy elsewhere, commanding a massive mirror ball and a battery of moving lights besides as Priscilla moves through different, comically exaggerated desert environments and times of day. Jonathan Deans and Peter Fitzgerald keep pace with a fine-tuned soundscape that cascades smoothly through the Palace and thunders when needed, maintaining the feel of lip syncing and then exploding into live performance. Though she took her time getting here, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has arrived in style. —Robert Cashill
Tom Stoppard has a wonderful knack of transporting his readers and viewers, to far off places, far from Broadway anyway, such as India, Prague, and the Russia of The Coast of Utopia. In Arcadia, he stays closer to his adopted British home, but transcends the centuries as he jumps back and forth from 1809 and the 19th century and the heady days of the poet Lord Bryon to the present day—at least as present as 1993 when the play premiered at The National Theatre in London, and was later seen at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theatre: both were directed by Trevor Nunn, who seemed especially suited to the task.
The current Broadway revival at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (based on a 2009 London revival) is directed by David Leveaux, who has directed other Stoppard plays in the past. His production is well directed although perhaps a bit less intriguing than the Nunn versions (perhaps as the plot is so familiar, there is less of an element of surprise.) The star of the revival is actor Billy Crudup in the role of Bernard Nightingale, a Bryon poetry scholar who shows up at an English country house where Bryon was believed to have stayed over 100 years before. Although his research proves false, the song he sings as he tries to prove his premise is quite spirited (although he was absolutely charming in the original iterations as the tutor Septimus Hodge).
Hildegarde Bechtler’s set echoes the original, most likely called for by the author: a large room in an English country house, with windows and doors opening to the back garden, and a door stage right and left for various entrances as exits as the cast seamlessly glide from one century to another. Donald Holder’s lighting adds the visual interest, with various shades of sunlight as the day fades to evening, with layers of colors upstage of the set, streaming in the large windows that define the room. The costumes by Gregory Gale span the centuries as well, with a contemporary English look counterpointing that of the 19th century, when mores as well as moirés were more confining.
But one of Stoppard’s clever conceits in Arcadia is that clothes from the 19th century are pulled out of trunks and closets to be worn for a costume ball in the present time (could that jacket have belonged to Lord Byron, and was there or was there not a period letter in the pocket?). Sound is by David van Tieghem, with music to set the tone for the play, including a waltz through time at the end, then characters from both centuries dance together toward their individual destinies. —Ellen Lampert-Gréaux