The critic who described this show as a mix of La Cage Aux Folles, Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages was giving it far too much credit. What it really is, is a blatant b-grade ripoff of the stage version of Xanadu. Seriously, they’re almost identical…the camp-classic film source material, the cheesy jukebox scores, the gaudy retro-kitsch visuals, the hammy line readings, and most of all, the attempted camp put over with a huge wink, and then another in case you weren’t looking the first time.
The difference is that the original Xanadu film, while far more entertaining than the stage musical, was still a piece of laughably terrible camp that no-one actually takes seriously, whereas The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was a richly emotional work of considerable dramatic power that actually has a significant unironic following. But it’s clear the adapters of the stage show were never really interested in that aspect of the material; they were drawn to the piece solely by the flashy drag-queen performances lip-synced to classic pop songs, rather than the surprisingly human characters and fairly serious themes of identity and alienation. They just wanted a campy, upbeat jukebox musical, a Mamma Mia in drag, and they played up that aspect of the material at the severe expense of the more dramatic content.
And frankly, at least the Xanadu musical had the movie’s pleasant score, even if they weren’t performing it to its best advantage. The score to this musical actually consists of better songs than the film soundtrack, whose tracklist looked like someone had read Dave Barry’s Book Of Bad Songs and taken it as a challenge. But the deliberate use of some of the worst songs of all time had helped give the film its uniquely campy flavor, as in the tone-setting opening sequence set to the fascinatingly horrible “I’ve Never Been To Me”. The stage show does retain the film’s musical centerpiece, the always immortal “I Will Survive”, and it still resonates with what’s left of the story. But otherwise it’s still basically a litany of clichéd drag-performance standbys (“It’s Raining Men”, “Material Girl”, “What’s Love Got To Do With It”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”), and other than “MacArthur Park”, none of the really extreme campy musical choices remain.
Worse, the attempts to work the songs into the story are extremely awkward…fitting pre-existing songs into a pre-existing story (as opposed to tailoring one to fit the other) is notoriously difficult, and the half-hearted attempts here only sap further strength from the film’s drama. Also, while Tony Sheldon, who starred in almost all incarnations of the show, gives an impressive performance as Bernadette, none of the other leads are more than competent theatrical journeymen, and this material demands more than that, especially now that the actors have to perform the songs themselves.
This show is actually worse than Xanadu, which was at least the top-notch Broadway-glitz version of that kind of insufferable pseudo-camp. This, despite its admitted visual splendor in places, is the bargain-basement version, put together in a slapdash hurry by cynical businessmen who only wanted to make a quick buck.