The musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert premieres in Perth, celebrating diversity with lavish abandon, says Rosalind Appleby.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Platinum Entertainment ·
Crown Theatre, 8 May 2021 ·
The image of a drag queen singing an operatic aria from the roof of a pink bus in the middle of the Australian desert has been etched into film history. The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert placed LGBTQI+ people and issues of homophobia right in the heart of the Australian consciousness.
The musical (written in 2006) captures the iconic moments of Stephan Elliott’s 1994 film about three drag artists heading across Australia in a bus called Priscilla to perform their show in Alice Springs. And after a long wait, Priscilla Queen of the Desert has finally rolled into Perth. The big pink bus is centre stage at Crown theatre thanks to the persistence of Platinum Entertainment, whose plans to give the WA premiere of the iconic musical in August 2020 were hijacked by COVID. Nine months later, buoyed by successful all-local seasons of We Will Rock You and The Boy From Oz, Priscilla was resurrected.
The giddy mix of crass camp banter, eye popping costumes and disco soundtrack translates beautifully to the stage, with the addition of extra songs and big choreographic numbers. The film’s road trip narrative about the central character Tick (Mitzi) heading to Alice Springs to reunite with his eight year old son is expanded in the musical to include a wider narrative of the search for family, and the freedom, acceptance and safety that comes with it.
The journey is shaped by the drag queens’ encounters with the towns and characters they meet along the way. Of course each pit stop is marked by a song, from “It’s Raining Men” in a Sydney nightclub to the rousing country pub anthem “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and a Kylie medley for the epic Uluru performance.
The creative team have obviously had a ball bringing Priscilla to life. The action circles (literally) around the bus, which sits in the middle of a revolve, providing plenty of fun ways for the cast to arrive and exit. Digital projections on side panels function both as scenery and help frame the wide stage. Cherie Hewson and Katrina Patient’s costumes and Axel Richerand and Trent Ashley’s wigs bring together fluorescent colours, spandex, sequins and Australiana in a riot of colour and energy.
Not everything worked; the famously exaggerated flare pants hampered the dancing resulting in stiff-legged movements that were awkward to witness. But the sense of spectacle, fun and outrageous abandon was joyfully conveyed.
Inhabiting the bus and stage with gleeful abandon are the drag queens Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette. Mitzi is performed by Cougar Morrison, a drag queen and cabaret artist who can now add musicals to their list of achievements. Nick Mayer is the sassy Felicia, skipping around the stage with Mitzi in skinny shorts and spandex tops with an endearing vulnerability. Both strut high heels far better than me, and can more than hold a tune. Completing the trio is comedian Peter Rowsthorn (Kath & Kim) who brought elegant poise to the transgender Bernadette, but on opening night missed quite a few notes, lines of dialogue and choreography cues. It seemed a strange choice to cast a stand-up comedian in such a demanding music theatre role.
The three leads are supported by a powerhouse trio of Divas – Kelsey Skinner, Morgan Cowling and Ruby Voss – that provide the vocals for the lip-synch numbers and a luscious backing chorus. Drag performer Dean Misdale inhabits the role of Miss Understanding with ease, as well as bringing his mighty voice to supplement the Divas.
Luke Hewitt brings a quiet nobility to Bob, the mechanic from Broken Hill who finds his way into Bernadette’s heart, and Janelle Koenig stretches the butch stereotype of Shirley the hardened bar waitress about as far as it can go.
The ensemble performers are impressive, singing and dancing their way through multiple song genres and gender-bending costumes, from taffeta tutus to sequined hotpants. Daniel Griffin directs the eight-piece band from keys, pumping out a tight wall of sound despite being lined up along the cyclorama at the back of the stage.
The musical includes the homophobia, racism and prejudice of the original 1994 film, “as a reminder to appreciate how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go”. The degrading portrayal of women and Asian people remains the most uncomfortable, presented as it is without critique or sympathy.
Director Trevor Patient attempts to balance this with an inclusive ending. A rousing version of “We Belong” brings the loose threads together, with a catwalk parade of costumes celebrating West Australian icons, that includes everything from local flora to a “Pavlova dress”, “Indigenous dress” and “Spudshed dress”. There is even a “Mark McGowan dress”, complete with a SafeWA scan code on the back of the jacket.
The lavish finale embraces the quirky diversity that makes our state so rich, and brought the audience to its feet, on opening night, in proud ovation.
Pictured top: the bus Priscilla is the centre of a riot of colour and energy in the musical ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert‘. Photo supplied
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