When PJ and I were planning our trip to England last month, the one show I definitely wanted to see was Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I love the movie, which is one of the great gay-themed films of all time, way ahead of its time. So, as soon as we landed in London and checked into our hotel we got our tickets for Priscilla for the second night we were in town.

I’ll state up front that this is going to be a mixed review. On the one hand, the show was entertaining. I especially liked the actors and was incredibly impressed with the stagecraft of the show, especially the quick costume changes. On the other hand, this show is little more than a collection of random songs — none of which are original — tied together by the barest of plots. As a result, we couldn’t care less about the characters or what happens in the show; we’re just waiting for the next big production number. I wish it had been more interesting on a narrative level.

The obvious point of comparison for this production is Billy Elliot, a great movie and show. Its creators took the plot of the movie, augmented it to make us care even more about the characters and time period, and then added original songs. It is an interesting show on every level, and it says something about gay issues.

Priscilla on the other hand is really just trying to make money. The creators clearly made a decision to use only old songs that audience members could sing along with–“You Were Always on My Mind,” What’s Love Got to Do with It,” “Hot Stuff,” and “I Will Survive” to name a few examples–as a way of filling the seats. It seems like this is a winning strategy, but the show could have drawn audience and been innovative and interesting. Why couldn’t they have taken a page from Billy Elliott and done more?

Because the potential to have been great is definitely there. The sets and costumes are amazing. What they do with Priscilla, the bus, is also great. And the quick changes for some of the actors seems impossible. The entire stage is a whirling dervish during most of the production numbers — they really know how to wow you with spectacular visuals.

The best part of the musical, I think, is that there are three divas who sing a lot of the songs that the drag queens lip sync to. Here’s an example of what I mean:

This is rather innovative. And they have the divas appear on stage in all kinds of different ways — hanging from the ceiling, on top of the bus, on the sides. You name it, and they probably appear that way at some point. It’s fabulous!

And the actors are great too. Don Gallagher as Bernadette is perfect. He imbues her with just the right mix of grit and vulnerability. He joined the production in March.

Oliver Thornton (left)  is also wonderful as Felicia. He’s hot for one thing, but he’s also a good actor. His Felicia is a new kind of drag queen (compared to the old form embodied in Bernadette), and Thornton doesn’t disappoint. Whenever he’s on stage, one can’t help but be mesmerized.

At one point during a dream sequence I got a little bored with the musical, so I started watching what some of the actors who weren’t part of the main sequence were doing while they were on stage. This included Thornton. I thought it was fascinating that he was looking out at the audience, scanning each of the faces that he could see from his perch on stage. Whether it’s actually what he was doing or not, it seemed like his was genuinely interesting in seeing who was in the audience and what our responses to the show were. It felt like a genuine moment of an actor being interested in his audience. I have to say I fell in love with him while watching him do this. (And since all audience crushes on actors are based on our imaginations of them, I’m ok if this is completely a projection on my part!)

Tick is played by Ben Richards, who I remember from Footballers’ Wives. He’s relatively new to the role, having replaced the original Tick earlier in June, I believe. He’s also great. (And he’s hot too!) His character is narratively the main one, since he gets the plot moving and he’s the “normal”one that we’re all supposed to identify with (or at least most of us will).

It was funny that when Richards first appears on stage, he soon takes off his shirt and he changes into drag while on stage. The women sitting around us all audibly gasped at how hot he is! Where Thornton is a muscled hot, Richards is a trim, runner’s build hot.

As the picture to the right demonstrates, he clearly didn’t mind a little nudity earlier in his career!

On the whole, this show is probably accomplishing what its producers had hoped for: financial success. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but wish for more substance throughout the show. If Billy Elliot can be original, successful, and have depth, then why couldn’t Priscilla achieve all of these things too?

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