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Priscilla Queen of the Desert

MICHAEL CASSEL GROUP and NULLARBOR PRODUCTIONS in association with MGM STAGE present PRISCILLA Queen of the Desert. Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, based on the latent Image/Specific Films, at the Capitol Theatre, Haymarket, Sydney.

PRISCILLA – Queen of the Desert – The Musical is now at the Capitol Theatre on a 10th Anniversary return run – last time at the Lyric Theatre. Since that beginning says Simon Phillips, the Director:

Our own bus has done a macrocosmic version of the road trip. PRISCILLA is the first Australian musical to conquer the two biggest showbiz smokes, Broadway and the West End. We then went on to visit smokes world-wide covering 29 countries and 134 cities; as well touring the length and breadth of Britain and the USA. 

Not much has changed in the show (from my memory of it – and I saw it twice) and the vivid brashness of its visuals, the ribald, vulgar comedy with the infectious inclusion of 28 musical track/icons from the real world – this is what is known as a Juke Box Musical, there is not much original musical material – covering a range of memories from Verdi’s Sempre Libera, from LA TRAVIATA to Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kerrs’ A FINE ROMANCE to personal favourites such as: I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER, I LOVE THE NIGHT LIFE, I WILL SURVIVE, DON’T LEAVE ME THIS WAY and some Kylie tunes, still pack a surety of engagement and raucous felicitations. The cannon bangs of silver paper falling all over the audience, at show’s end, is like the joy, the topper, at the pop of a Champagne cork – a cue for celebration, to be able to experience this madcap invention, again.

The plot line is simple and steers onto the right side of ‘sentimentality’ – it is, of course, based on people we actually know (Google Cindy Pastel) – and thus has solid truths to ‘ground’ the experience, and like the influence of the main stream Television show NUMBER 96, on Channel 10, in the seventies, PRISCILLA, ten years ago, may have been an important part of the activating force to ‘educate’ the Australian Community to this world so that it could be able to whole heartedly embrace the Marriage Equality vote that was sanctioned late last year, despite the hesitancy of our Governments. Being at the Capitol Theatre the other night was like re-meeting an old acquaintance (relative?) who we vaguely feel, may have done something important for us, a time or so ago, and, so, are deeply indebted too.


Most probably.

The tremendous star of this show is, undoubtedly, the Costume Design of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner – scene after scene of gorgeous outrageousness. It felt as if we were at an animated museum of glorious clothing, being ‘strutted’ on impossibly exaggerated body physiques that were as ‘ridiculous’ in their ‘tormented scale’ as the combined material-look of all those tortured fabrics. So many of the Costumes have become iconic images. (One cannot obliterate one’s important memory’s cells – thankfully.) Both the Costume and the Bodies are, undoubtedly, the result of years and years of gestation – amazing efforts. And, all of it is flaunted in the comforting colours and space of Brian Thomson’s Set Designs, including the Bus (known as Priscilla), that ten years later worked on the Capitol stage without a single, perceptible bug of collapse. There were anxious fingers crossed about the temperament of that Bus in the early days of this show’s history – in fact that is why I saw the show twice – the first time the Bus refused to perform! Of course, one should not overlook the contribution to the eye feast made by Lighting Designer, Nick Schlieper.

The Choreography by Ross Coleman (the original artist) and Andrew Hallsworth has relentless energies but does feel as if it needs to start again – it feels repetitive and dated. Those new (chorus) bodies and eager participants look as if they could do so much more dance-stuff to give the production not only an historical veracity but also a contemporary zing that we can see, presently, down at the Roslyn Packer with the Sydney Dance Company’s team – though, probably, not as brilliantly. The first big dance number sets a quality high water mark, and promise, that is not really ever touched again – whatever, the drilled proficiency of the rest of the show. Whilst the orchestrations by Stephen “Spud” Murphy and Charlie Hull, led by Music Director, Stephen Gray, still carry a thrill that ignites the muscle memory of well loved tunes and many, many happy times – it still feels ‘cool’.

The company is nearly all new, though Lena Cruz has come-back to hilariously pop her ping pong balls as Cynthia to the beat of Pop Muzik – it is a curious number to see in our new #metoo time. The unselfconscious exuberance of Ms Cruz carries us away.

Too, Tony Sheldon is up there re-creating his inimitable Bernadette. In the program we are told that he has given some 1,750 performances that includes Australia, New Zealand, London, Toronto and on Broadway. Mr Sheldon’s performance shows no sign of exhaustion. It appears as spontaneous in its musical theatre offers as it may have done right at the start. Now it is immaculate in its timing and effects with an inner throb of humanity beating through every minute. I was in a kind of professional thrall about this performance the other night as I once was watching Carol Channing in London, giving her Dolly Levi, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, in 1979 – 15 years after the original production of HELLO DOLLY! – as if it were the first night. As well, I, wickedly, could not help but posture to my theatre companion, as to whether Mr Sheldon was now, also, channeling another Australian International star: Cate Blanchett – what with that up-tipped chin/jaw and cheek bone demarcation with the slow closing and opening of Bernadettte’s eyes (lashes galore) accompanied by a widening of the plumped-lipped rosy mouth into a smile that peaks with a lascivious half-open mouth held with a promising offer of a come-hither-for-the-time-of-your-life moment! (Carol Aird of the film CAROL pings into my receptive memory scan!) Whatever, Mr Sheldon’s turn is a star turn. More to say later.

David Harris, with eye-popping torso and arms, has created a handsome Tick, the Drag Queen who is also a Dad, with a more decided sense of comfort as the Dad over the Drag Queen part of his role. That impression, unbalances the spinal premise of the work and flies in the face of the real world origin of the role – who was not backward in being ugly to win a point. Mr Harris is, relatively, hesitant to revealing the tart undisguised presence of a human caught in the dilemma of his sexuality – his identity – agonising, stewing, in societal guilt and cultural shame, to both cultures: that of the so-called ‘real’ world and the drag queen world – he can’t come out to either! This Tick likes showing being a Dad more than being a Drag Queen?!! And though comparisons can be unfair, Hugo Weaving in the film is unashamedly, at times, brutal as Tick, and his internal homophobia is palpable making Tick ‘ugly’ and yet empathetically loveable as well – the qualities that marks Tick as a challenge in the musical theatre canon.

Euan Doidge, as Felicia, presents an extremely ‘muscular’ body that also has the youthful advantage of a lithe fitness and sinuous flexibility that strikes a seductive visual power (if that is to your taste, of course) and moves through the role with an immaculate exactitude that is, however, mostly, of an externalised brilliance with no true or authentic offers of internal character revelation – he hits the ‘marks’ with the right, ‘smooth’ physical ‘gestures’ but acting-wise is fairly superficial. One has no tears for Mr Doidge’s journey. This Felician gaining of wisdom, is, for us, of just a vague interest, that one, who knows the scenario simply tick boxes as ‘telegraphed’. This role does not seem to cost Mr Doidge’s courage to reveal truths of identification/understanding.

But all is not lost in the experience of this PRICILLA, for it is the majestic sweep and conviction of Mr Sheldon that still makes this central trio work. What the other two actors lack in the creation of their characters Mr Sheldon endows with loving detail – it is, indeed, a marvellous and generous performance. It must be exhausting.

There is, as well, other support from Robert Grubb, as Bob, and Adele Parkinson, in a very underwritten role, as Marion. Both these actors give, when the opportunities are in the writing, a substantial depth of feeling, that in musical theatre terms have some gentle veracity.

This PRISCILLA Queen of the Desert, is a fun show and is so packed with visual glitz, precision and indelible pop music pleasures, that the sheer nostalgic magic bus ride is worth getting on board for. Tony Sheldon is a ‘miracle’ and the Costumes still a consummate delight.