One of the songs played in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” is by the Village People. But it is not the song you might be thinking of, the one with the letters. It’s not the macho one, or even the one about the branch of the military.
Not bowing to the obvious, the song is “Go West.” There is a Village People album by that name (and the later version recorded by Pet Shop Boys), but this is not the first, second or even third choice of a Village People song you’d expect to be featured in a touring Broadway musical. If you were to ask a panel on “Family Feud” to name a song recorded by the Village People, “Go West” would likely get a buzzer and the giant “X.”
But it is in the show, and when I caught a performance of “Priscilla” at Pantages Theater in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, fans in the audience not only recognized the song, they went nuts for it. Nuts for deep cuts, that’s on the travel log for “Priscilla,” a show that is true to its sensibilities.
The show opening Tuesday night at the Venetian Theater is as happy, fabulous and flamboyant as anything you’ll see on the Strip. It’s “Jubilee” dumped into a mirrored disco ball. The show’s 500 or so costumes include a set of green cupcakes dancing to “MacArthur Park” (finally making sense of the “green icing” reference) and a kick line of showgirls-as-paintbrushes. At the outset, three dancers are hoisted high above the stage for “It’s Raining Men.”
Yes, subtlety is taking a summer vacation as “Priscilla” rumbles into Vegas. The plot centers on the misadventures of burlesque stage performer Tick (whose estranged wife has persuaded him to meet their 6-year-old son, Benji); Bernadette, a transsexual lip-synch artist mourning the death of her lover; and Adam (or “Felicia,”), a catty female impressionist. Tick convinces his two oil-and-water friends, who can’t stand each other, to hop on a dilapidated bus dubbed “Priscilla” on a trek across Australia to unite Tick and Benji.
But this is no ordinary vehicle. Priscilla is to busses what Elton John’s "Million Dollar Piano” is to keyboards. The whole show prances, vaults and sashays around this dazzling vehicle, equipped with hundreds of LED lights and set on a rotating stage. It fits in well as a backdrop among all of the dancers in oversize wigs and bedazzled jumpsuits. It is the rhinestone-adorned recreational vehicle used by the three central characters.
Ticket-buyers will find “Priscilla” a garish, in an in-your-face experience, but the show is also very smartly written. Quick quips abound. One exchange: “Go take your hormones!” “I think I just heard a whore moan!” Another, as the bus stalls: “Get around back and start pushing.” “It’s the story of my life.” I came away from “Priscilla” with the same sort of appreciation for precise, witty writing as I did after my first trip to “Avenue Q.”
Of course, “Q” did not last at Wynn Las Vegas, but there is less pressure on “Priscilla” because it is to run just nine weeks at Venetian (the original 11-week run was cut so producers could take a generous offer to perform the show for two weeks in San Francisco). And marketing is crucial — if you recall, the advertising campaign of “Avenue Q” was vague and late-starting, using furry taxicabs to try to explain what the show was about when it had already started its run.
There is no such problem with the push behind “Priscilla.” Its attitude is evident even in the Venetian lobby, where a giant, high-heeled show is being displayed. Sequins. Heels. Wigs. “Go West.” If you can’t figure it all out, or are somehow threatened by the fabulousness of it all, steer clear of “Priscilla.” Otherwise, it is an action-packed ride.