Review: ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical’

The stage adaptation of Stephan Elliott's quirky 1994 Aussie film "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" is much like a preening drag queen: brash, glittering and a towering achievement, but upon close inspection her bones are not as fine as might be expected.

The stage adaptation of Stephan Elliott’s quirky 1994 Aussie film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” is much like a preening drag queen: brash, glittering and a towering achievement, but upon close inspection her bones are not as fine as might be expected.

Tale of three glamazons on an road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs in a dilapidated bus has received a full-throttle makeover. There are almost twice as many numbers (39, mostly disco), with all but those laid over the various drag bits performed in full voice, and the stage is awash with jaw-dropping costumes.

But the celebration of camp Australia that was fresh and contemporary in 1994 is somewhat passé in 2006, and the rich national flavor that will enchant local auds could limit the production’s export potential, vital to justify its A$7 million ($5 million) development cost.

Tony Sheldon was born to play the older transgender character, Bernadette (portrayed by Terence Stamp in the film). Equally, Daniel Scott as the Guy Pearce character Felicia is energetic and comic, but Jeremy Stanford as Tick (Hugo Weaving in the film), who brings the trio together and carries the weight of the story, lets the side down.

He misses cues and doesn’t come close to matching the strong moves and fine voice of his co-stars. Somehow, he also got the really uninspired costumes, the single flaw in the otherwise best-dressed musical ever staged in Oz.

Costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won an Oscar for their wardrobe on the movie, insisted on a significant budget increase, and every dollar has been well spent here. Show swims in color, not just in the imaginative drag getups but also in the frocks adorning the three divas, the chorus in various bars and the queens’ street clothes.

The sets were always going to be tricky. The Aussie Outback is sparse, flat, endless and unchanging, so the kitted-out bus in which the drag queens travel is key. But the vehicle is mostly dwarfed by the vast stage.

Helming his first commercial tuner, Melbourne Theater Company’s artistic director Simon Phillips has drawn on disparate influences. A funeral scene marking the death of Bernadette’s partner was inspired by the funeral of theater director Richard Wherrett, whose pallbearers walked to Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”

A bush dance scene wherein audience participants are left stranded onstage is reminiscent of a scene in Phillips’ 2005 production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” And the parade-like finale, a hodge-podge celebration of Australiana, recalls the 2000 Sydney Olympic closing ceremony.

Allan Scott’s book only occasionally deviates from the original script, mostly to good effect, as in added references to contempo gay icons Kylie Minogue and Madonna. The addition of a “Macarthur Park” scene, complete with twirling cupcakes, is indulgent but gorgeous.

Nearly all the music is sourced from existing hits from outside Australia such as Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and Charlene’s “Never Been to Me,” which was featured in the original film.

The humor, vernacular, even the gentle sociopolitical references wed this show to Oz, where it will be warmly appreciated by auds fond of the film. But the production in its current form falls short of the stated aim of family entertainment.

The infamous ping-pong ball scene, where an Asian woman stages an impromptu sex show, is done tastefully, but removal of liberal profanities and of a scene with the boys cavorting in a leather bar would broaden the show’s appeal beyond a narrow demographic.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical

Lyric Theater, Star City Sydney; 2,014 Seats; A$96 ($71) Top

Production

A Liz Koops & Garry McQuinn for Back Row Prods., Michael Hamlyn for Specific Films, Allan Scott, John Frost and Michael Chugg for Chugg Entertainment presentation, in association with MGM On Stage, of a musical in two acts, with book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott. Directed by Simon Phillips. Musical director, Stephen Murphy. Choreography, Ross Coleman.

Creative

Sets, Brian Thomson; costumes, Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner; lighting, Nick Schlieper; sound, Michael Waters; make-up, Cassie Hanlon. Reviewed, opened Oct. 7, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Bernadette - Tony Sheldon Tick (Mitzi) - Jeremy Stanford Adam (Felicia) - Daniel Scott Bob - Michael Caton Shirley - Genevieve Lemon Marion - Marney McQueen Cynthia - Lena Cruz Miss Understanding - Trevor Ashley Divas - Amelia Cormack, Danielle Barnes, Sophie Carter Frank - Ben Lewis Jimmy - Kirk Page Young Bernadette - Damien Ross Benjamin - Joel Slater/ Rowan Scott/Alec Epsimos/Joshua Arkey
With: Michael Griffiths, Nick Hardcastle, Mark Hodge, Christina O'Neill, Kurt Phelan, David Spencer, Dean Vince, Damien Bermingham, Jeremy Youett, Rohan Senior, Sean McGrath.
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