It was almost 24 years ago when Stephan Elliott’s now-iconic Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert arrived in local cinemas. Screened at Cannes, ultimately finding an enthusiastic international audience, and even taking home an Oscar recognising Tim Chappel’s and Lizzy Gardiner’s exceptional costumes, it’s a film that remains revered in its homeland.
In 2006, the movie’s musical manifestation, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, had its world premiere in Sydney. Since that time, productions have played across the world – the show has played 134 cities in 29 countries – and, among its accolades, Priscilla has earned Laurence Olivier, Tony and Helpmann Awards.
This year, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the original Australian production, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has returned to the stage, steered by its original director, Simon Phillips. Having just completed a highly successful Melbourne season, it’s arrived at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, before heading on to Adelaide in August.
Priscilla is the story of Anthony ‘Tick’ Belrose (David Harris), a Sydney-based drag queen, who receives a phone call from his estranged wife, Marion (Adele Parkinson), the mother of his eight-year-old son, Benji. Marion convinces Tick to bring his act to her casino in Alice Springs, which will give Benji the opportunity to finally meet his father. Tick invites Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), a transgender woman who was once a ‘Les Girls’ showgirl and whose husband has just died. He also asks fellow performer Felicia (Euan Doidge) to join the trek to the Red Centre, much to the annoyance of Bernadette.
En route to Alice Springs, the trio encounters a cavalcade of characters as colourful as themselves. It’s an experience that, as well as being the catalyst for personal growth amongst the three, culminates in the joint realisation of the importance of family – the one we’re born into or the one we make. It’s a story told in an immensely dynamic production underscored by some of the catchiest and campest pop music of the past four decades (from Alicia Bridges ‘I Love the Night Life’ to Peaches & Herb’s ‘Shake Your Groove Thing’ and, of course, Gloria Gaynor’s global disco anthem ‘I Will Survive’). Thanks to the book, penned by Eliott and Allan Scott, as well as Phillips’ direction, it’s a production infused with a lion’s share of humour and enormous heart.
An actor increasingly in demand on North American stages, Harris is affable and appealing as the discontented Tick, a man struggling to find his place in the world. His character’s development through the show is believable and, vocally, he quickly demonstrates his talent.
Australian audiences are also fortunate to have the opportunity to see Sheldon, who returns in the role of Bernadette which he originated in the world premiere production and went on to play in both London and New York. A bona fide theatre stalwart, Sheldon shines as a tough yet soft woman lamenting the recent loss of her husband.
Doidge gives his most memorable performance to date as the exuberant and ostentatious Felicia. Maintaining remarkable energy from start to finish, Doidge combines the right combination of gregariousness and confidence with arrogance and naivety. Vocally, his standout moment arrives near the end of the show, as Felicia performs a Kylie Minogue tribute atop Uluru.
Robert Grubb lends sincerity and integrity to Bob, the laconic outback mechanic trapped in an unhappy existence. As his spirited wife, Cynthia, Lena Cruz reprises the role she played in the original Australian production and makes an indelible mark with her superb comedic timing and ping pong ball-popping performance of M’s ‘Pop Musik’. As Miss Understanding, Blake Appelqvist leaves his own impression as a drag queen offering her own take on the Tina Turner classic ‘What’s Love Got To Do With it’. It’s an early audience favourite on opening night.
In three of Priscilla’s most crucial roles – the divas, who literally fly in and out of the show – Angelique Cassimatis, Samm Hagen and Cle Morgan are together a formidable force. All leading ladies in their own right, their powerhouse vocals are an integral ingredient in making this production, ensuring justice is done to the compilation of disco favourites that make up Priscilla’s score. From the first line of the opening number, each of the three performers delivers.
Stephen Gray’s musical direction sees every well-known track performed live by a tight band with wonderful energy and at full throttle. His musical arrangements ensure great renditions of classics and appropriate moulding to the tone of each scene. Meanwhile, the choreography (created by both the late Ross Coleman and now Andrew Hallsworth) is thoughtfully imbued with humour, consistent with the overall tone of the show.
And when it comes to the visuals, there’s much to like. Production designer Brian Thomson has recreated a version of Priscilla herself that looks fit to travel. The glitzy, decked-out bus is an impressive centrepiece of Thomson’s set. Chappel and Gardiner have repeated the work they undertook on the film, creating over 500 costumes and 200 headdresses for Priscilla’s stage iteration. Costuming for the production is astonishing, both in terms of the attention to detail on show and the sheer number of pieces that appear throughout.
As well as being successful in championing crucial contemporary social themes, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a jubilant and hugely entertaining night at the theatre. Even if you’ve never seen the film, it’s difficult not to be won over by the humour, the hit-filled score and the tremendously talented cast working to make sure that Priscilla’s limited stop in Sydney is a memorable experience for all those who catch it. Jump on board!
PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT – SYDNEY SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until Saturday 21 July, 2018
Venue: Capitol Theatre (13 Campbell Street, Haymarket)
Tickets: By phone on 136 100 (or bookings for groups 10+, call 1300 889 278) or online at www.ticketmaster.com.au