Chuck Darrow: Local version of 'Priscilla' gets lost in the desert

Posted: March 01, 2013

THERE IS A lot to recommend about "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," which concludes its six-day local run Sunday at the Academy of Music.

For starters, the flamboyant "jukebox musical," based on the 1994 film of the same name, boasts first-rate staging highlighted by dozens of costumes that fairly vibrate with Technicolor awesomeness. Then there are solid performances by the three lead actors (two portray drag queens, the other a transsexual), a score that boasts more hits than all three "Godfather" movies combined (including such '70s and '80s anthems as "I Will Survive," "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" and "Material Girl"), a script full of sharp jokes and plenty of goofy energy and campy hijinks.

But ultimately, this celebration of the boys-will-be-girls world of female impersonators is weighted down by an unavoidable question: Why?

That is, why all this to-do in support of a story that, despite its best efforts, never fully engages on anything but a superficial level?

"Priscilla's" three main characters bring the kindling for honest emotional resonance - above all Tick (strongly played by Wade McCollum), the cross-dressing, married father of a 6-year-old son whom he's never met (it's this situation that puts the trio on a road trip through the Australian Outback central to the musical's plot). But they never quite start a fire.

Case in point: When Tick finally meets his son, the moment has all the melodramatic power of someone ordering a burger at McDonald's.

Sure there's a positive, drag-queens-are-people-too message, but it never really hits the mark. Perhaps it's tough to feel for a guy in 6-inch heels and a multi-hued Afro wig so big it qualifies for its own ZIP code.

Whatever the reason it misses the mark, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" is ultimately the theatrical equivalent of a doughnut - a sugary, easy-to-chew-on confection with no center. Or to put it another way, it has a lot of guts (and legs as well, considering its ongoing popularity), but no heart.

Incidentally, Stephan Elliott's book is filled with vibrator jokes, penis jokes, fake-breast jokes and the regular dropping of F-bombs - orally and visually. As such, it makes it inappropriate for the young-adult crowd.

Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday, $105-$20, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.

'Assassin' returns

If you missed it earlier this winter when InterAct Theatre Company did it, you have another chance to see "Assassin," David Robson's searing and provocative two-character work of fiction based on the 1978 on-field hit that resulted in receiver Daryl Stingley of the New England Patriots being paralyzed for life. It's running through March 17 at Ambler's Act II Playhouse.

Sunday's performance includes a post-show discussion led by former Daily News football writer (and current WIP-AM personality), Ray Didinger.

Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Thursday through March 9, March 14-16, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday and March 13, 2 p.m. Sunday, March 10 and 17, $33 (Sunday matinees) and $27, (215) 654-0200, act2.org.

Kudos I

Philly's 1812 Productions has been awarded the George Bartol Arts Education Award. It marks the first time the annual honor has been bestowed upon a theatrical entity.

According to a press release, the $5,000 prize from the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation, "is given to an organization that provides sustained, meaningful exposure and participation in the arts; that demonstrates an active engagement in the lives of its students and community; and that maintains high artistic standards for its faculty and students."

For 14 years, 1812 Productions, which bills itself as America's only full-time comedy theater company, has, under the auspices of its 1812 Outreach program, worked with students at the Widener Memorial School for Children with Disabilities and South Philadelphia High School. The goal, said the prepared statement, is to use comedy as a means of encouraging students' "sense of community, history and humanity."

Kudos II

A. Zell Williams has won this year's Terrence McNally New Play Award presented by Philadelphia Theatre Company. The 29-year-old Californian was won for his play, "The Urban Retreat," a drama about a teacher whose writing career is affected by his relationship with a former pupil-turned-rap-star.

The honor comes with a $10,000 cash prize, as well as a year of development support (including readings), administrative support and networking to support the play beyond the confines of PTC.


Email: darrowc@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-313-3134

On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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