Regent Theatre, Melbourne
January 30, 2018
Who among the opening night audience of this much-loved musical didn’t know what to expect? Between Stephan Elliott’s 1994 film, and the musical adaptation that began touring the nation, then the world (134 cities and counting), a decade ago, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a landmark in contemporary Australian culture. So there were few surprises for all but that handful of Priscilla virgins, but much to delight and even tug at the heart in this colourful, energetic musical that celebrates difference, friendship and having a fabulous time.
David Harris, Tony Sheldon and Euan Doidge during dress rehearsals for Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical at Regent Theatre on January 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Sam Tabone/WireImage)
The drag queens travelling from Sydney to Alice Springs on a bus called Priscilla are perfectly cast. As Tick, who is making the journey to meet his son for the first time, and also make peace with who he is, David Harris is the grounded centre of the trio. The production’s original Bernadette, Tony Sheldon, reveals the grace, a nicely timed wit and endearingly ordinary voice of this transgender woman whose lip-synching glory days are long past. Euan Doidge is an irresistible, flexible ball of energy as the camp, catty, Kylie-loving Felicia.
They are given great support by Robert Grubb’s kind country bloke Bob, Aaron David in the small role of Tick’s son Benji (he easily landed the two-part harmony of their charming duet), and an adaptable ensemble that sing and dance their way through various roles across the Outback. Of special note are Blake Appelqvist as over-the-top MC Miss Understanding, Lena Cruz, who reprises her role of Bob’s crazy-frustrated mail-order bride Cynthia, and Emma Powell who, as a Broken Hill sheila, drains all the life out of I Love the Nightlife. As the three divas who descend from on high to supercharge the singing, Angelique Cassimatis, Clé Morgan and Samm Hagen are dynamite. The unseen live band delivers energy and volume.
Photo: Ben Symons
Directed by Simon Phillips from the book by Elliott and Allan Scott, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is pleasingly paced. This jukebox musical generally flounces from one upbeat song to the next, but also pauses for moments of poignancy that give depth to the central themes of difference and friendship, and to develop the three central characters – perhaps even a little more than the film, thanks to songs that convey a heart full of feeling in a few lines. Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours, for example, and We Belong, of Pat Benatar fame.
The big numbers are spectacularly staged, mostly thanks to inspired costumes and choreography; the set is usually little more than the versatile, LED-light-covered Priscilla. A Fine Romance offers a classic flashback to Bernadette’s Les Girls glory days, for example, and Better the Devil You Know is a raunchy, energetic introduction to Felicia. A couple of fantasy sequences turn daggy songs into moments of joy: Colour My World features dancers dressed as big pink paintbrushes; they return as giant green cupcakes for MacArthur Park (the song about someone leaving the cake out in the rain). The only mild disappointment is Felicia’s lip-synch to Sempre libera from La Traviata, simply because it was so breathtakingly staged in the film – that swathe of silver fabric can’t fly in the desert as grandly as it did in the great outdoors.
Tony Sheldon during dress rehearsals for Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical at Regent Theatre on January 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Sam Tabone/WireImage)
The costumes, by the film’s Oscar-winners Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, are integral to the show’s appeal. A dazzling parade of colour and texture, they include various versions of the film’s signature look: giant headdresses and shimmering pants stretched to extreme over giant boots. Each look, including elaborate, glittering make-up, ought to take hours to get in and out of, but over and over, the cast slips from costume to costume in moments.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical is a queer celebration, so it’s disappointing that it can be careless with other communities. One can perhaps overlook the caricatured foreign tourists, but not Go West’s long feathered war bonnet, the headdress sacred to North American First Nations, or the grand finale walk on top of Uluru by our non-Indigenous trio.
Essentially, however, this is a show that radiates joy, hope and acceptance. Not to be missed, even by those who know the story well.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical plays at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne, until April 29, before continuing to Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane.