Left – Tony Sheldon. Photo – Ben Symons. Cover – David Harris, Tony Sheldon and Euan Doidge. Photo – Sam Tabone (Getty Images)
Adapted from the now classic Australian 1994 film by Stephan Elliot, Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical first hit our stages in 2007. After an extensive Australian tour, it has gone on to be one of our most successful theatrical exports with seasons on Broadway and the West End, as well as numerous cities across the US and UK.
In the program notes for this tenth anniversary season, director Simon Phillips observes that after more than a decade on the road, Priscilla returns to an Australia that has ‘happily changed since we left’. Sadly it seems this production has not. Our otherwise glowing review of the original 2007 production concluded with a word of caution – “if you are offended by stereotypes this show may feel like fake nails scratching blackboards.” A decade later, those fake nails are screeching louder than ever.
Priscilla follows the story of Tick (David Harris), a successful Sydney drag performer, with a secret wife and a six year old child who is keen to get to know his father. Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) is a former Les Girls leading lady, a hopeless romantic and a master of the old school lip sync. In stark contrast is Felicia (Euan Doidge), a young, loud, crass, Kylie-and-sex-obsessed diva wannabe. Together the three embark on a road trip from Sydney to Alice, ostensibly so that Tick can finally meet a son he has hitherto avoided. Along the way they meet an assortment of apparently cartoon characters and cardboard-cutout Aussie clichés, but by the end, the trio have flimsily discovered something about the nature of family and belonging to a community (cue Pat Benatar’s We Belong).
Both an advantage and disadvantage of the ‘jukebox’ musical is that audiences are already familiar with the songs, and in this case, many of the anthems used in the show were musical icons in their own right, long before their inclusion in the Priscilla soundtrack. Overall the music is handled well and provides much of the show’s energy, but there are some numbers that frankly we’ve seen performed much better elsewhere. If you’re going to include a song as overused as Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors, then you have to at least do something interesting or original with it. What we got was rather earnest and underwhelming.
Of course a stage musical, based on a film, where the lead ‘singers’ actually mime their way through a pre-recorded soundtrack would not make for much of a live experience. Priscilla cleverly gets around that conundrum with the addition of the three Divas (Angelique Cassimatis, Samm Hagen and Cle Morgan) – a trio of soulful angels who hover above the action and (it must be said magnificently) belt out the toons live, while the drag characters lip sync below.
Tony Sheldon gives a standout performance as Bernadette, and for my money his delightful lesson in lip syncing was one of the highlights of the night. His warm and generous performance has won him a slew of Best Actor awards both in Australia and abroad, as well as nominations for prestigious Tony and Olivier Awards, and it's easy to see why. David Harris as Tick has perhaps the more complex character transition to make, but struggles to convince. The text does not always assist, providing him little opportunity to flesh out his character. Euan Doidge as Felicia is a sort of camp Puck, and is given some of the most groan-worthy dialogue in the play – and there’s plenty of it. As a performer he has a relentless energy on stage, and has a fine voice in those numbers where he actually gets to sing.
Costumes by Acadamy Award winners Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner are suitably OTT and as stunning as they were ten years ago.
On paper, Priscilla has all the ingredients for a fun night out, but in practice she is beginning to show signs of her age. Granted, it was never conceived of as a subtle show, but it veers wildly between taking the piss out of everything, and weirdly taking itself too seriously. It has a perfectly decent and timely message of inclusiveness and tolerance that invites the audience to challenge their clichéd preconceptions of the drag community, and to see these men as husbands, fathers and lovers. It's a message that would be a whole lot easier to accept if it weren’t for the lazy portrayal of ‘other’ characters using the very stereotypic treatment it eschews for the main characters themselves.
Michael Cassel Group and Nullarbor Productions in association with MGM on Stage presents
Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: Regent Theatre | 191 Collins St, Melbourne
Dates: from January 30, 2018