REVIEW: Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical (The Civic)

Review by James Wenley

(Photo by David Rowland)

[And so you’re back… from overseas]

Simon Green brings grace to the role of Bernadette
Simon Green brings grace to the role of Bernadette

When the Priscilla bus last made a stop at the Civic in 2008, it was the first time that the Aussie musical had made an international trip. We were a try-out as they continued to evolve the show, and Aucklanders certainly showed their love with a rush for tickets. Since then, the Queen of the Desert has quite a few more km’s on her: London, New York, Brazil, Sweden, Spain, Seoul… even a production on a cruise ship.

How is she looking? Aged, certainly. She can’t do everything she used to (this touring production doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of ’08). On the plus side, the bus’s exterior has been upgraded, with more flashing lights, and we’ve even got more Kylie Minogue thrown in. And at her heart, she’s still the same Priscilla, as uplifting as ever.

The narrative, as with the original 1994 film, is simple, stretched like a fish-net stocking close to breaking point. Three Sydney drag artists boldly “Go West” on a road-trip to Alice Springs to perform at a casino. The ulterior motive of Tick (Brian Buscher-West, an original ensemble member of the Broadway cast) is to reconnect with his young son. Bernadette (Simon Green, from the UK National Tour) needs a distraction from her grief after the death of her lover Trumpet. And Adam (André Torquato, from the Brazilian and Norwegian Cruise productions) wants to blatantly disrespect aboriginal sacred land and climb to the top of Uluru/Ayers rock in a frock and sing Kyle tunes. Along the way they have engine troubles, meet hostile locals, and sing as many gay anthems as possible.

I’ve got history with this show. I saw it on Broadway in 2011, where it truly reached the pinnacle of its camp spectacle. I also saw the original Sydney production in 2006 as a 17-year-old, with few expectations going in. So, I come to Priscilla‘s Auckland comeback as an unabashed musical theatre fanboy. I remember the exact moment I fell for this show. Trumpet’s coffin is wheeled out as a priest begins a subdued “Don’t leave me this way”.  The ensemble flutter about in the most gorgeous black mourning wear you have ever seen. Then the lights, sound and choreography kick into up into a full on celebratory chorus: “Oh baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you…”. Camp with a capital C, you can only truly get away with something like this in musicals.

Part of the charm of this musical for first-timers is wondering which disco hit will come up next… “Venus”. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. “I Will Survive”. For me, it reaches its zenith in Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park”, where, after Bernadette left a cake out (but not in the rain), Tick bursts into a full production number with the ensemble twirling in sickly-sweet green cupcake outfits holding umbrellas (you quickly learn that this show will take any excuse for a costume-change). The mega-mix, with a fashion parade of Australiana flora and fauna, leaves us with one final high.

Priscilla respectfully balances the musical genre’s need for live performance while still maintaining the art of lip-sync, by having three divas (Blue Woodward, Amy Di Bartolomeo, Elie Leah) literally fly in to take the singing duties for some of the drag songs. There’s also a wonderful tribute to the original Les Girls performances which began in the 1960s in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

Those with long memories who saw the 2008 Auckland season will notice some changes (it doesn’t help that they’re blasting the original Australian cast recording in the foyer). Gone is the opening number “Downtown” and Tick’s first drag number, “I’ve Never Been to Me”. These both added poignancy to the opening, the idea of escaping the world and joining your tribe, and the wistful desire to find you true self. Instead, we’ve got the rather unsubtle, yet rousing choice of “It’s Raining Men”, a change made for the Broadway version. Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” is sadly gone too, replaced by ‘True Colours’, which is a great song in its own right but again makes the message blunter. I also miss the didgeridoos in “I Will Survive” [UPDATE: The aboriginal character, Jimmy, was cut with producers claiming they were unable to find any aboriginal actors. Considering this cast is drawn from performers from around the world, this really isn’t good enough].

But this trip we’ve gained Home and Away’s Ray Meagher as Bob the mechanic, and his down to earth charm lifts every scene he’s in. It was a delight too to see the return of Lena Cruz, who originated the role of Bob’s wife Cynthia. Our central trio – Buscher-West, Green and Torquato – make the iconic roles their own, though Torquato endearingly is yet to master the Australian accent.

The time period of the musical is ambiguous, but 10 years on from the musical debut, and 22 years after the ground-breaking film, Priscilla’s depiction of gay culture/queer identity now looks narrow and dated. Though Bernadette self-identifies with the term “transsexual”, the language has changed, and I wonder if this needs to be made clearer for the education of general audiences. The mean-spiritedness and stereotyped nature of some of the jokes also grates. While I have no problems with Priscilla as a mirror of its time, for its continued life, checks need to be done to ensure its continued inclusivity.

There was one moment of audience reaction that made me uneasy. After winning over the patrons of Broken Hill, the trio return to find their bus graffitied with the message “fuck off faggots”. There were loud guffaws throughout the crowd. Sure, some of this might have been a laugh of shock, but also I wondered if enduring unconscious biases had overruled the audience’s empathy. Priscilla’s message is that we all deserve love and acceptance. This reaction illustrated why this still needs to be said, and said loudly.

Maybe a time will come when Priscilla seems quaint, when the discrimination and struggles its depicts will be just a relic of an unenlightened age. I find it gob-smacking that while Priscilla has been travelling around the world as an Australian ambassador for acceptance that the Australian parliament still haven’t achieved marriage equality.

Priscilla is a musical secure in its identity as a camp jukebox musical, and proud of it too. Unpretentious, joyous, with the most delectable costumes, it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. We’re lucky to have Priscilla back – catch this ride before she’s gone.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical is presented by Lunchbox Productions and Auckland Live and plays at The Civic until 13 November. Details see Auckland Live

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Kathleen Mantel

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