Dancing Queens

Glitter and be gay — Nick Adams, Tony Sheldon, and Will Swenson board the bus for Broadway in the stage musical.

BY Ari Karpel

February 08 2011 5:00 AM ET

 If you ever have to remove some glittery lipstick really fast, use packing tape.

That tip comes courtesy of the stars of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the stage adaptation of the hit 1994 Australian indie film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, set to open on Broadway March 20.

A disco musical about three gay performers who road-trip in outlandish drag through the unwelcoming Outback in a pink bus christened Priscilla, the show puts its three leads through a series of lightning-quick transformations, many of them complete with lipstick changes.

“Literally, we kiss the lid of the glitter container” to apply the stuff, says Will Swenson, who was nominated for a Tony award for playing Berger in the recent Broadway revival of Hair and now stars as Tick (drag name Mitzi), Priscilla’s protagonist. It’s Tick’s desire to meet his son that prompts the cross-country trek — unbeknownst to his friends. “We’ve got ChapStick or lipstick on, and we kiss it and then the glitter sticks to our lips.” Out of drag and under the gun to get back onstage, they take it off by kissing a long strip of packing tape. “It looks absurd,” Swenson says.

And it’s hell on the lips. “It’s a constant adhesive pulling at your face,” says Nick Adams, who plays Adam/Felicia, the flamboyant young drag queen dead set on lip-synching Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” on remote Ayers Rock (in Bernadette’s words: “A cock in a frock on a rock”). But the actor’s not complaining. This is Adams’s first leading role on Broadway, following memorable ensemble turns as a Cagelle in La Cage aux Folles and as Larry in A Chorus Line.

The used strips of tape hang on the walls, making for colorful backstage decorations. “Rows of kisses,” says Tony Sheldon, who plays transgender Bernadette, in need of a getaway since her lover has died in a freak hair-bleaching accident.

Priscilla’s quirky sensibility is pretty unusual for a Broadway show. Not to mention pretty gay. For a production to succeed these days, it must appeal to the broadest possible audience of families and tourists — much as Priscilla has in Sydney, Melbourne, and London. Despite pretty savage reviews in the British papers (“They all said, ‘This is the biggest piece of crap in the history of the world!’” recalls Sheldon, a native Australian who’s been with the show since its earliest workshops), it’s been a West End hit for two years running. Still, Priscilla has gone through quite a transformation along the way, not the least of which is two new American leads — Swenson and Adams — for the pre-Broadway run in Toronto, which is where we sat down in December, a few hours before an evening performance.

“Of course there are going to be people who just think it’s mindless frippery,” Sheldon says. “But I think for what the show sets out to do, it’s achieving it.”

Tags: Theater

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