‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert – The Musical’ delivers a camp party

Priscilla – Queen of the Desert – The Musical | Crown Theatre
Until 31st May | ★ ★ ★ ★  

There’s certainly a lot of camp fun and disco celebration crammed into the musical version of Priscilla – Queen of the Desert. It’s the latest in a strong of WA based productions to grace the stage at the Crown Theatre, and while homegrown talent once again gets a chance to shine brightly, this production has a few challenges to overcome.

We hit the road to Alice Springs, Tick has promised his ex-wife Marion a drag show for the casino, and he’s convinced retired Les Girls performer Bernadette to get back on stage and come along for the journey, and much to Bernadette’s chagrin the third performer signing up for the sojourn is young performer Adam, who embodies Felicia Jollygoodfellow. Taking on the leading roles is cabaret star Cougar Morrison as Tick, comedy legend Peter Rowsthorn as Bernadette, and newcomer Nick Mayer as Adam.

Just like in the movie we leave Sydney, head to Broken Hill, breakdown in the outback, meet some indigenous folk and get rescued by a mechanic named Bob.  The second half of the show introduces us to Bob’s Filipino wife Cynthia and her unusual performance skills, before the trio and Bob face some challenges in Cooper Pedy, and push on the to Alice Springs.

While the soundtrack to the original film was a huge success, not all of the songs featured in the film have made the transfer to the musical. It’s understandable, ABBA have their own musical after all. Instead a jukebox collection of tunes from the 70s, 80s and 90s are used to fill in the action.

Everything from Tina Turner to Pat Benatar, Cyndi Lauper, Petula Clark, Donna Summer, John Denver and Elvis Presley is worked into the mix. The segues into these tunes can sometimes feel like a song has been crammed in because the rights were available, rather than it fitting into the narrative.

The musical version does take advantage of one throwaway line from the original film, where Mitzi comments that Bernice “left her cake out in the rain”. The reference to MacArthur Park probably went over the heads of most of the audience even in the mid-90s. Here it allows for a massive musical number featuring dancing cupcakes and a disco rendition in the style of Donna Summer.

When Tick finally meets his son Benji for the first time it’s mentioned that he likes all the usual things young boys like, and he’s also quite a fan of Elvis Presley. It seems just way to launch into a rendition of Always on My Mind. While the inclusion of the song seems incredibly forced, it does deliver an emotional and touching moment for Cougar Morrison.

Part of the success of the film was its balance between dark moments and high-camp. Once enveloped into the world of musical theatre many of the original film’s serious content become lighthearted and watered-down. The graffiti attack on the bus is toned down from the brutally confronting “AIDS fuckers go home” to instead read “Faggots Go Home”, which many people in the audience on opening night seemed to find hilarious rather than offensive.

Peter Rowsthorn in Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Peter Rowsthorn is having the time of his life in high heels as Bernadette, but he plays her as a comical character, retaining none of the gravitas of Terrance Stamp’s original performance. Cougar Morrison is delightful as Tick, and Nick Mayer is completely captivating, or maybe that should be ‘camp’tivating, as Adam.

Nick Mayer in Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Elsewhere in the cast many well known local performers get their moment to shine, Luke Hewitt is adorable as lovestruck mechanic Bob. He even gets his own short musical number which is filled with emotion. It was tragic that is morphs immediately into the next number, you could tell the audience were dying to give him a massive round of applause.

Dean Misdale opens the show as Miss Understanding, and then serves as one of the chorus of divas who appear throughout the show. Comedian Janelle Koenig gets all the laughs in her appearance as barfly Shirley, and there’s great moments from Joel Davis and Samuel Pilot as Indigenous duo Jimmy and Mike.

There were several moments during the opening night when the vocals of the lead performers were lost behind the music, and too often they appeared to be performing in the dark, let down by a lighting design that was desperately needing a follow-spot to highlight the stars of the show.

The stage design cleverly allows for the set of the bus to rotate around, giving us a 365 view of Priscilla in all her glory. The costuming was a mixed bag of hit and near misses. Priscilla is associated with some of the most outstandingly creative and innovative outfits of all time, so it’s a tough brief for designer Cherie Hewson to meet.

Some of the outfits looked amazing, but a few looked as if they might come apart at any moment and were of a standard that would definitely invoke an order to “sashay away” if RuPaul was to see them. The closing number however was a lot of fun, as all the cast got to walk the runway in a series of outlandish outfits inspired by local landmarks and recent news, the presentation including outfits dubbed ‘The Bell Tower’ and ‘The Fairy Bread’.

The opening night performance certainly had the crowd clapping and singing along, and the cast were rewarded with a massive standing ovation and rapturous applause. The musical version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is fun, camp and completely frivolous.

See Priscilla – Queen of the Desert – The Musical at the Crown Theatre until 31st May.

Graeme Watson 

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