Saturday 20 November 2010

Theatre Review: Priscilla Queen of the Desert

The name of this theatre production is certainly not unknown to any of us who saw the 1994 film of the same name. That Australian comedy-drama became something of a cult classic and received a rating of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film was written and directed by one Stephan Elliot who co-authored with an Alan Stone this musical stage adaption of the film. The musical was first put on in Australia in 2006 then New Zealand, London in 2009, debuted in Toronto in 2010 and will be staged on Broadway in 2011.

While the story pretty much follows the film, one has to remember that the film was a comedy-drama, not a musical. The singing and dancing are part of the stage adaptation and considering the personalities of central characters, three drag queens, "camp" is an important element of this production. Like many of the recent "jukebox" productions of the past decade, the music is not original but consists of well-known pop songs.

As I explained in Theatre Review: Rock of Ages, a jukebox musical is where one picks a specific composer or a group of pieces then works out a narrative to link them together. With Priscilla, the author already had a story; in fact he had a film into which he has slotted appropriate musical numbers. I would be curious to discover if these productions are faced with copyright problems. Rock of Ages made specific and humorous mention of the song Rock of Ages by the rock group Def Leppard for which they could not obtain the rights to use.

Priscilla is full blown camp. The musical numbers are all terrific with lots of glitz and while the story plays an important component for sewing everything together; it is the numbers which have us all tapping out feet.

Without too much of a spoiler alert, this is about how "Tick" the main character is invited to perform at a club managed by his wife, a casino resort in Alice Springs, a town in the middle of the Outback. Tick asks 2 other drag queens to join him and we follow their adventures and their antics as they wind their way through the wilderness. Obviously the meeting between a culture akin to rednecks and three city drag queens does not always go well. Oh and by the way, for those not in the know, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is the name of the bus our protagonists use for their travels.

A sub-plot to the main story is that "Tick" has a son with his wife, a son whom he has never met. The young boy who plays Tick's son does an excellent job on stage and I was surprised to see somebody that young as part of the production.

The music without a doubt is the hook for the entire proceedings. I am certain we may have forgotten the name of the song or the original artist or even when the song was on the radio but we all do remember it clapping along or even singing the lyrics. It is like the show itself is a compilation of oldies but goodies giving us all an opportunity to hear some songs we haven't heard in a long time but remember liking a lot when they were in the top ten.

I go down the programme reading the list of songs: It's Raining Men, What's Love Got To Do With It (this had a funny Tina Turner imitation), Material Girl, Holiday / Like a Virgin, Boogie Wonderland, Like a Prayer, etc. I read in the notes that the Australia production used several songs by Kylie Minoge which were substituted with songs by Madonna as the producers thought North American audiences would not be that familiar with this Australian musical star.

I had to laugh when they rolled out MacArthur Park, a song I haven't heard in ages. Hats off to the writers for coming up with an amusing way of introducing this song into the story line. However let's recognize that any story, especially one built on "camp" gives the writers a lot of latitude in how to connect the songs to the flow of events.

While there are a few female parts in the show, most of the people on stage are men. All in all, there are a lot of good looking bodies strutting around on stage. I was duly impressed by one Nick Adams who showed us several times how well he could do the splits. Wow, that is a move usually reserved for the female dancers but this gentleman seems to do it with ease.

As I said, "camp" is the name of the game. Starting with a giant disco ball lowered from the ceiling which filled the Princess of Wales theatre with that throw by vibe of the late 70's, the production showered us not once but twice with confetti. One number had members of the cast coming out into the audience to get about 8 lucky souls on stage for an impromptu couples dance. They all got a deserved round of applause for being good sports. The theatre has a seating capacity of 2,000 and at Saturday's matinee performance, it looked like it was 99.999% sold out. Ha! That's a lot of people to be dancing in front of!

The original film is a cult classic. This musical production is campy and a lot of fun. However, behind the scenes, in interviews with some of the cast, in write-ups about the show, there's an idea of making the public aware of gender issues. Mainstream culture is very out of touch with such terms as transsexual or transgender and there's the hope that this show will do its part, even if a small one of informing people about things they may not be aware of. Bernadette, one of the three main characters is portrayed as being a transsexual, a post-operation transwoman.

This is a fabulous show. I guarantee you'll be tapping your foot if not singing along. While Rock of Ages was good, Priscilla seemed to better hit the mark. Of course, a lot has to be said about the music. The music of Rock of Ages is centered around 80's and 90's glam rock slash heavy rock like Poison, Journey and Asia while Priscilla is focused more on disco and dance music, music which I believe made it more onto the radio than the heavy rock. Therein lies its attraction.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre through to January 2, 2011. This is a limited 12 week run before the show opens on Broadway.

As the theatre poster says, "Life's an adventure. Dress accordingly."


Wikipedia: Priscilla Queen of the Desert (musical)

Wikipedia: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,_Queen_of_the_Desert

my blog: Theatre Review: Rock of Ages

Mirvish Productions, Toronto, Canada: Priscilla the musical


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