THE BLOG
03/29/2011 03:29 pm ET Updated May 29, 2011

Priscilla , How to Succeed

One of the hottest events in the fall of 1971 was the arrival from San Francisco of a drag troupe called The Cockettes. They were being produced in New York by such eminent personages as Truman Capote and Rex Reed. It took place in a huge, long unused theater on lower second avenue.

The hosts had invited le tout New York. I had just begun working at Women's Wear Daily and was impressed to see among the grandees that cold November evening the socialites we covered on a regular basis -- Mica, Chessy and many with less exotic names. Andy Warhol was there, though he left early (apparently there were limits to the dictum he uttered leaving Edward Albee's Tiny Alice, "It was boring, but then I like to be bored.")

The world of show business was represented by, most notably, Mike Nichols and Angela Lansbury. (She also left early.) Our own drag community contributed a queen, nay, an empress, named Ekaterina Something-or-Other, in full regal garb as a member of the Russian nobility. Her entrance down the aisle was the grandest moment of the evening.

The show itself started very late. It was a dud. The Cockettes were not ready for prime time.

But the evening has remained in my memory as an event of great significance -- it meant, "Welcome to the Seventies," a decade that absorbed and institutionalized the mishegoss of the sixties. Drag troupes back then seemed outre and daring. Now they are commonplace.

Hence my lack of enthusiasm over the much-anticipated Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, now at the Palace Theater. It is based on a film that starred Terrence Stamp as a Sydney transvestite, who, with two other queens, crosses the great Australian desert to meet the six-year-old son he fathered when he was married and presumably straight.

The material might have made a touching show, but here it is simply an extended skit. Instead of an original score, it recycles hits from decades ago by the likes of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Donna Summers. The songs are invariably done with a series of excellent dancers doing mundane choreography in wonderfully flamboyant costumes.

(I was reminded of the first time I saw Barry Humphries as Dame Edna. He asked if there were any foreigners in the audience. When a Japanese man raised his hand she waved a garish scarf at him, explaining to the rest of us, "foreigners like bright colors." Whenever the show flagged, he would wave the scarf at the Japanese man.)

Priscilla abounds in energy, and there are standout performances by its three stars -- Will Swenson, Nick Adams and especially Tony Sheldon, as the most fully realized of the characters -- but it seemed a fairly primitive entertainment. (Surely there is no clearer sign of amateurishness than audience participation -- at the top of the second act the performers drag members of the audience onstage to dance with them.)

Perhaps I found Priscilla dispiriting because I had been so exhilarated the night before by Rob Ashford's revival of Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, one of the masterpieces of the "Golden Age" of musical theater.

Loesser's score remains impressive because, unlike his earlier hits, Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella, this one represented an almost willful disregard of the pop charts. Most Happy Fella, even though its tone is operatic, had the infinitely popular Standing on the Corner, Guys and Dolls contributed numerous standards to "The American Songbook". But How to Succeed is almost entirely plot songs. Dinah Shore was unlikely to cover "A Secretary Is Not a Toy." Sinatra never got around to "The Company Way."

Loesser's lyrics remain unusually urbane, elegant and witty, without ever seeming effortful.

Harmonically this score is Loesser's most adventurous. Sadly, it was also the last to be produced on Broadway. Shortly before he died my colleague Doug Watt ran into him, and Loesser confessed, given the rapidly changing landscape of American pop music, he was at a loss to know what to write.

How to Succeed was given a lackluster revival 15 years ago with a lethargic Matthew Broderick in the key role. Here it is taken by Daniel Radcliffe, better known as Harry Potter. Radcliffe is enormously appealing as J. Pierpont Finch, the young man whose only goal is to reach the top of the corporate ladder by any means possible.

Radcliffe is not a natural singer, but he does well with the difficult score. His naturally attractive face has been camouflaged with severe eyebrow makeup that makes him seem more demonic than his actual demeanor. The man who created this role (can it really be 50 years ago?), Bobby Morse, managed to convey this grim determination without sacrificing any of his boyish charm. Radcliffe doesn't really convey the ugly side of the character, but he has a spirit that is terribly winning. He also has the youthful energy to perform Ashford's dizzily imaginative, highly acrobatic choreography with great abandon.

Don of West 87th Street, Wisest of Men, saw the show a few nights before I did and, though he found it as entertaining as I did, pronounced it a revival for the ADD generation because the stage is not quiet for a single second. Ashford always has his dazzling dancers hard at work performing his inventive, supremely demanding steps. (He has chosen to accompany, "Cinderella Darling" with a tap dance for the chorus girls. It makes no particular sense, but it's captivating.)

The audience, of course, is filled with kids who have come to see the star, but it is unmistakable that they enter the spirit of this elegant, witty evening, which is as remote from their show biz experience as Baroque Opera.

The supporting cast is extremely strong. John Larroquette is splendidly pompous but endearing as the head of World Wide Wickets, the company Finch is determined to conquer. His duet with Radcliffe, "Grand Old Ivy," is enormously rousing, as is the boisterous football choreography Ashford has created to accompany it.

As Hedy LaRue, the femme fatale who helps push Finch up the ladder, Tammy Blanchard is especially funny. Ellen Harvey has a great Old New York sassiness as a savvy secretary. Christopher J. Hanke makes the role of the boss's nasty nephew his own, eschewing the effeminacy long associated with it. Rob Bartlett is great in two roles.

Rose Hemingway has poignancy as Finch's hapless girlfriend. Mary Faber is splendidly tart as her mentor. Anderson Cooper is strong as the offstage narrator, a role originated by Walter Cronkite.

Derek McLane's modular sets fill the stage with the kind of frames that evoke '60s disco dancers, evocatively lit by Howell Binkley. Catherine Zuber's costumes also have a strong period feel.

Half a century has not diminished this sendup of careerism. Verbally and musically, it remains a touchstone of what Broadway used to be able to do.