PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT
PRISCILLA - QUEEN OF THE DESERT - THE MUSICAL, Capitol Theatre, 17 May-19 July 2018. Photography of the 2018 Australian tour
On a wintry afternoon in New York City in 1994, feeling lonely and homesick, I crept into a movie theatre. Within minutes I was laughing and crying with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a rom-com in drag about a bus and the search for love, tolerance and understanding. Some 100 minutes later I walked out feeling desperately proud – and much better.
Ten years ago on the opening night in Sydney of a genuine world premiere (that is – it really did go global), I felt the same mix of joy and pride for Priscilla Queen of the Desert - the Musical. It was a no-brainer: to fall in love with Tony Sheldon’s world-weary heart-stealer Bernadette – well, let’s be honest, with Tony Sheldon. And, as the evening progressed and the old bus trundled her way from Sydney to Alice Springs, to also fall under the spell of the stage show.
Since that night – according to director Simon Phillips – the show has been seen in 29 countries and 134 cities around the world and was the first Australian musical to succeed on Broadway and the West End. (With Sheldon in Bernadette’s svelte frocks for more than 1000 of those performances, at last count.)
Originally written by Stephan Elliott, Allan Scott and others, Priscilla is a true phenomenon and this anniversary Australian tour is yet another as the wondrous Sheldon returns with a new company, some of whom would have been school kids when he first donned the platform espadrilles. There’s been some tweaking and polishing since we last saw it, and somehow there seems to be even more heart and soul than ever before. It’s remarkable.
Opening with the lip-sync drag show on stage, the Three Divas provide the voices from high above and they are electrifying. Cle Morgan rips the rafters with Angelique Cassimatis and Samm Hagen as the bus passengers and their madcap scheme are introduced...
It begins with a phone call: Alice Springs resort manager Marion (Adele Parkinson) demands that drag artist Tick (a charming, believable David Harris) stop stalling and get his wimpy arse to the Alice where their young son is longing to see him. No more excuses: there’s a show spot to fill in the casino, come do your drag act. Or else.
With some difficulty Tick enlists a reluctant Bernadette (Sheldon), transexual veteran of Les Girls, fresh from burying her boyfriend and fresh out of clean hankies. It gets even trickier when Tick introduces the prospective third member of the party, the bumptious Felicia (Euan Doidge) who could single-handedly put the dermabrasion industry out of work.
A key to the show’s success – the journey, the depressing Sydney drag scene that precipitates it, and what happens to the trio along the way – is actually encapsulated early on in an exchange between two disgruntled artists. Asks one: “why do we put up with the insults and abuse night after night?” Says the other: “So we can feel like real women?” On opening night at the Capitol, there was a moment of silence before the audience erupted in thunderous applause at this prescient observation whose time has come; and Phil Scott wrote it 12 years ago!
And that’s the enduring charm of Priscilla: the glitz, hilarity and jubilant vulgarity are the showy surface beneath which beat real hearts and real soul and the real menace of an Australia that tends to take one step forward and two steps back. Since the bus first took to the road, marriage equality is now law, by popular vote, the Gosford Uniting Church gives bigots something to think about every Sunday, and Catherine McGregor is celebrated in a mainstream play at STC. Yet race hatred, women hatred and homophobia are still alive and flourishing – in high places as well as dark corners.
So, when the trio wins over a Broken Hill bar of rednecks, it’s the local bully bitch Shirley (gutsy Emma Powell) who’s the focus of derision; and when the bus breaks down, their saviour mechanic Bob (a delightful Robert Grubb) is a Vietnam vet who can see nothing wrong – only Priscilla’s rotten old fuel tank.
At the same time, when he persuades them to put on a show for the locals, they are out-gunned by Bob’s mail-order wife Cynthia (fiery, take-no-prisoners Lena Cruz, the other veteran of the first production). She’s a remnant of the semi-acceptable face of the sex industry: a Bangkok bar dancer with an act involving ping pong balls and amazing vaginal muscles. And the pack of blokes baying for her to perform is the one that will corner and set out to assault and rape Felicia. More than a decade on it’s still all too plausible.
On the optimistic side is Tick’s reunion with his boy (in a duet that’s become moving rather than schmaltzy). The kid – different actors on alternate nights – is typically non-judgemental and more interested in his dad doing an impersonation of Elvis than that his job involves false eyelashes, fake boobs and high heels. He also wants Tick to come and live in the Alice with him – there’ll be room for his boyfriend, of course. “I don’t have one,” says a sheepish Tick. “Mum says it’s about time you did,” retorts the kid.
Priscilla is also about the music, of course, but to call it a jukebox musical is just rude. The songs are integral to the times and the culture of Sydney drag of the ’90s and are therefore an irresistible mix of the riotous, corny, anthemic, danceable and heart-wrenching hits of the era. The live band, led by Stephen Gray, pumps the on-stage energy along with an all-singing, all-dancing company (choreography by the late Ross Coleman supplemented by Andrew Hallsworth).
And of course, there’s no Priscilla without the fabled costumes (Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner), the bus and the whirlwind settings (Brian Thomson) and the equally sumptuous lighting (Nick Schlieper). The return of Priscilla is that rare prodigy: better than first time around. Grab a ticket and get aboard for the best winter treat in town. Totally recommended.