Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’s Opening Night: Even Recipes for Success Can Leave a Sour Aftertaste

By Ted Kruckel March 24, 2011, 10:00 AM EDT

Photo: Dirty Sugar Live

About half of my day is spent preparing and eating food, and the other half thinking about it—and that includes sleeping. So trust me, I usually know just from reading a recipe if I’m going to like the dish.

That’s why I was so excited when my editors asked me to attend and cover the opening night party celebrating the Broadway bow of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The tip sheet laid out the ingredients perfectly. Drag queens? Check. Bette Midler? Check. Zillions of confirmed guests? Check. Sponsors Manolo Blahnik and Magnolia Bakery? Double check.

On the first day of spring, March 20, at Pier Sixty, 1,060 people, counting me, descended upon Abigail Kirsch’s event venue, where there were many amusements. There was a giant Manolo Blahnik shoe decorated with Swarovski crystals, plus a chandelier made up of his real shoes. A tiered tray of mini-cupcakes (1,000 in all) was constantly replenished. And a lounge area was set off with a pink feather boa’d proscenium with crsytal beaded entryways.

The DJ Lina Bradfield, who was, I believe, once/occasionally a man, was doing her bit—in pink sequined suit, natch. I heard Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band’s “Deputy of Love” and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel  (Mighy Real),” both of which do it for me. I unsuccessfully tried to interview Lina—that was stupid—but I did get her to smile for my camera.

The call time for the event, to which all of the show attendees had been invited, was 10 p.m. I got there at 11 p.m., having had dinner; I hate getting to these things late at night and getting in a giant buffet line. 

Boy, did I play it the wrong way. There were still mounds of copious food when I got there. I counted five identical catering stations that featured some sort of shrimp tart (OK), the obligatory mac n’ cheese with bread crumb topping (yum), and a seafood brochette (dry), plus a whole bunch of other stuff. The stations were impeccably maintained and the bars were well stocked with no lines.

I went about trying to meet some of the colorful guests, which wasn’t that hard since there were only a handful.

First up was Nathan Lee Graham, who plays Miss Understanding in the musical and whose photo here (plus a few others) was shot by moi on my phone. Her feathers are raven if you care. I did. 

Then there was associate costume designer Brian Bustos, whose outfit featured zillions of crystals, all done by his lonesome and comprising a rainbow spray effect on the front and a skull on the back. The skull was an homage to Alexander McQueen; Brian was disappointed, in that way fashion people can be, that I didn’t know why. (McQueen apparently used skulls a lot in his designs. I seem to remember a black and white scarf that lots of celebrities wore to be cool. I guess I better get used to a whole season of deification of Alexander McQueen, what with that Vogue party coming up and all, but I met the bloke more than once and found him completely disagreeable so it won’t be easy.) Brian also had very elaborately decorated red shoes, which surprised me. Usually when wearing an elaborately beaded jacket I go with more traditional footwear, but since it gave us a conversational escape from old McQueenie, I learned that they can be found, along with other theater-friendly footwear and accessories, at Rootstein’s in the Village.

Then there was Courtney Act, which, if you say it with an Australian accent (the movie of course was Australian, and the show originated there, then mounted in London where it is still running, before coming here) sounds like “caught in the act.” Get it? Took me a few tries.

Anyway, despite her rainbow platinum hairdo, which was uplifting to say the least, Courtney seemed bored with the whole affair. She was a guest of Vanity Fair—a shemale, not the magazine—who was once the wig master of the show and is now in makeup, none of which I could confirm. One of the things that you have to admit is that these drag people must have a lot of time on their hands. The intricate costumes to bedazzle, the elaborate make-up to be applied, the wigs that need mastering, and the clever names that need to be thunk up—how do they keep so many balls in the air?

Normally, this kind of stuff has me in a hootenanny, but I had to agree with Courtney. This party was a big yawn. But why? With all these ingredients, shouldn’t I be throwing mini-cupcakes in the air and catching them while dancing to “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys?

I guess my first clue was when I arrived at the Chelsea Piers. I’m sure you’ve all done that endless cab ritual going in and out, but when I disembarked I was surprised to see a line of people waiting to leave already, including one giant dragger in a red sequined dress. (Or do I even need to mention the sequins? Let’s assume that all outfits described hereafter to be either sequined or Swarovski-crystalled unless otherwise mentioned.)

So that started me thinking. Was it so wise to make these people schlep all the way to Chelsea Piers on a Sunday night (the hardest school night, in my book) when they were all tuxedoed and gowned in a Midtown theater? Why not choose Roseland or some other joint?

Then I started looking around the party, and it struck me. This was basically a boring group of upscale theatergoers. Brave enough to go to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but none the less still pretty much your standard opening night theater group. Where were all the other crazy drag queens (I’ve described most of the ones I saw)? Here with all these boas and crystals, the place should have been crawling with them. In my day with a budget like what appeared here, I’d have toodled up Susanne Bartsch and Joey Arias and asked them each to fill a stretch limo, which they would do for a song.

Such an inexpensive way to bring this idea to life, and such a silly opportunity to be missed.

Then there was the staging of the event. No matter how you slice it, Pier Sixty is a corporate-style establishment. Every time you look down and see the carpet, you’re reminded. And why did I see the carpet? Because it was way too bright for this event. In fact, the lighting by Global One Multimedia was a complete failure.

Let’s start with the Manolo Blahnik giant shoe covered in crystals. Why was it displayed on a one-foot clunky riser, instead of hoisted to eye level? And with all these crystals, why weren’t there some moving lights spotted on the spiker making it glitter and gleam?

Likewise the Manolo chandelier was a big miss. It was hung too close to the ceiling and lit too brightly from within, as opposed to spot-lit from without, making the shoes appear to be just shadows.

Then there was the dance floor placement. Why not push it all the way to the darkest, deepest corner and create some sort of nightclub effect? This felt like dancing at the Sheraton.

I could go on. The boa proscenium to the nightclub area was too dinky for the scope of the room, and it was improperly staged so that it wasn’t even used as an entry. The giant catering barges looked nebbishy once everyone had their fill—why not break some down? And why wasn’t anyone passing those little cupcakes? Why didn’t Lina play a few Bette Midler numbers? In fact, where the hell was Bette Midler? Why wasn’t she ripping the crowd into a frenzy and begging people to send their non-Tea Party friends to see her show? I’m told she was there but I didn’t see her and I was looking. Hard.

Why? Why? Why, I asked myself during the 15-minute wait in the cold night for the airport-style cab line to move along.

Coincidentally, I had another taste of Australia last Thursday, this one by down under chef Peter Evans who was the inaugural guest chef for Creative Edge’s Culinary Council. This catering company is importing chefs to collaborate with them on new menu items, and I went for a tasting at their Hudson Street two-story event space, tucked niftily into the back of the Archives building.

There were standouts. A simple goat cheese on toast was elevated in taste and appearance by baby thyme. A fried miso leaf with shrimp stuffing was impossibly light and yet sturdy enough to eat. And a steamed Barramundi (Australian White Bass) with lime and coconut was soft and subtle. I normally can’t take coconut, but an extra slow cooking process for the sauce made it perfumey and dreamy.

Peter has five books and was in town to do The Early Show, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing his mug out there in the ever-growing world of celebrity chefs. But this one, I can at least vouch for his cooking.

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