Review by Lily Stokes
Stephan Elliot’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert first premiered at the Cannes film festival on 15th May 1994. Hailed as a ground-breaking piece of queer Australian cinema, Priscilla broke the mould of AIDS-centric LGBT+ narratives of the late 20th century to deliver a truly unique, heroic and inspiring story from Australia’s drag community. Twenty-seven years later, the spirit of Priscilla lives on in one of musical theatre’s shiniest and sparkly shows. As Australian drag becomes more popularised and accessible (after the recent premiere of Rupaul’s Drag Race: Down Under), Willoughby Theatre Company’s production of Priscilla is a timely reminder of the enchanting power of live drag, and a noble homage to Sydney’s drag herstory.
Priscilla recounts the midlife crisis of Tick - or Mitzi (Brent Dolahenty) - who yearns to escape the Sydney drag scene after years of thankless work and compounding criticism. Tick’s estranged “wife” Marion (Taryn-Lea Bright) encourages him to visit her in Alice Springs to stage a drag show at the local casino - and reunite with their son, Benjamin (Mitch Perry). A reluctant yet hopeful Tick assembles life-long friend Bernadette (Glenn Morris) and fellow performer Adam - or Felicia (Tom Gustard) - to glamour-up and travel to the red-centre in a rundown bus they baptise Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The three queens venture through“the middle of woop woop”, encountering clueless tourists, small-minded locals and unapologetic homophobes to live-out their Australian fever-dream of being “cock[s] in frock[s] on a rock”.
First and foremost, I must congratulate Director Adam Haynes for acquiring such a diverse and talented ensemble to breathe life into Priscilla. Each leading role was cast perfectly, supported by an overwhelmingly energetic, colourful and capable chorus. Every musical number was almost perfectly polished, with particularly outstanding dance performances in ‘Colour My World’, ‘Go West’ and ‘Shake Your Groove Thing’ (thanks to the consciously camp choreography of Janina Hamerlok). Dazzling visions of disco, glitz and glamour were fully-realised across all elements of production, including James Wallis’ lighting design, Hannah Trenaman’s wigs and makeup, Wendy Walker’s props and, of course, the incredible set by Josh McIntosh. A special congratulations goes to McIntosh for designing and building the pièce de résistance - Priscilla, the big pink bus. It’s worth noting that this bus was made especially for this production, weighing only 350kg and boasting working head and taillights, conventional bi-fold bus doors and removable side panels. It made an unforgettable centrepiece.
Possibly the most breathtaking element of this production was the amazing costumes, which were sourced from Origin Theatrical’s international tour of Priscilla. Originally designed by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, and then coordinated by WTC’s Joy Sweeney, the costumes were world-class and yet so refreshingly Australian. Particular favourites of mine were featured in ‘Macarthur Park’ (“someone left the cake out in the rain”) - a beautiful array of freckled cupcakes, lamingtons and pavlovas graced the stage, complete with light-up candle headpieces. The flurry of sparkles, colours and lights was thrilling to witness.
The only thing more dazzling than the costumes were the performances from the talent in them. Dolahenty presented an earnest and personable Tick/Mitzi, showcasing the caramel tones of his baritone register alongside a well-developed belt. Gustard as Adam/Felicia was equally triumphant, moving through crass and cockiness to vulnerability after a violently homophobic encounter. Lastly, Morris was outstanding as Bernadette. He encapsulated a refined femininity that stood apart from the other queens - which is unspeakably important, considering Bernadette is a transgendered (rather than cross-dressing) character. This would have been quite difficult in a musical theatre setting, as the temptation to ‘camp-up’ or exaggerate wouldn’t be easy to resist. Instead, Morris’s Berni was maternal and caring with a stinging tail, delivering her zingy one-liners effortlessly.
The talent in supporting roles was also outstanding - namely, the three ‘Divas’ as the omnipresent muses of drag. Karen Oliver’s exquisite ‘Sempre Libra’, Jessica Zamprogno’s soulful ‘Say A Little Prayer’ and Nikole Music’s funky ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ were absolute highlights, and together, their harmonies were A++ (a testament to the talent and professionalism of these three). Geoff Stone as country-bumpkin Bob was characterised perfectly, juxtaposed in delightful chemistry with Morris’ Berni. Sarah Dolan’s Shirley was HILARIOUS, and had me laugh-crying in my seat. Lastly, Susana Downes’ athletic portrayal of Cynthia was down-right impressive, and Jerome Studdy’s alluring Miss Understanding certainly set the bar for the talent on stage. I wish I could list the ensemble one-by-one and congratulate them - feeding off the energy of a masked audience must have been difficult, but the ensemble kept the energy up and had everyone beaming pearly-whites behind their masks. You wouldn’t know, but we were all lip syncing along!
Just as a final note, I’d like to congratulate musical director Jeremy Curtin and the orchestra, who built an energetic and stylistic musical foundation for the production. The transitions between recordings and live music were particularly well managed, especially after the Alice Springs performing montage. Admittedly, I was confused as to why recordings were used at all when a live pit was available (specifically in ‘A Fine Romance’), but I realise this is a reference to an ongoing debate regarding lip syncing versus live performance in drag (or Bernadette and Les Girls versus Felicia). It’s worth noting that I’m also not a big fan of jukebox musicals, but this score fit so perfectly with the narrative that to exclude any of the numbers would have been criminal.
I could write more about queer-coding throughout the production (the Tinkie Winkie road sign, an appearance by the village people, mimicry between the Divas and the queens) but I’m sure Director Adam Haynes is aware of his genius attention to detail. Performances by the ensemble, the production design and an array of small but significant details made Willoughby Theatre Company’s production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical an absolute triumph. I encourage musical theatre buffs, drag fanatics and just about anyone else to see Willoughby Theatre Company shake their groove thing before leaving the Concourse Theatre on May 30th. .
Image Credit: Production Team