Priscilla Queen of the Desert - the Musical
Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Palace Theatre, London
Review by Philip Fisher
Perhaps the biggest musical opening of 2009 to date is this stage version of the ultimate camp road movie.
The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert quickly acquired cult status after its silver screen arrival in 1995. Not only did viewers wallow in overblown campness but they could enjoy an Australian outback travelogue at the same time.
Sadly but unsurprisingly, the red vastness and unusual fauna are inevitably missing from the Palace Theatre. However, they are replaced by the kind of production qualities that make you forget that we are supposed to be in a recession.
Even Messrs Busby and Berkeley might have eaten their hearts out at some of the effects that repeatedly attempt to outdo each other in this 2¾ hour spectacular, which practically elevates kitsch to a pink religion.
With apologies to the leading actors, the star of the show is undoubtedly its eponymous heroine. Where the bus in the film cost $10,000, the one that we are lucky enough to witness on stage is reputed to have set the producers back no less than £1 million.
That money has not so much gone into horsepower as candlepower. This Priscilla is less a vehicle than a multi-coloured, wheeled light show designed to take the breath away.
The effects are enhanced by stunning costumes and wigs worn by a talented crew of singers and dancers who pound out hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s with energy and gusto, always well choreographed by Ross Coleman.
The biggest name in the cast is Jason Donovan, who makes a rather masculine Tick, the leader of the expedition of drag queens (or "gender illusionists") from Sydney to Alice Springs to perform in the greatest cabaret show that the city has ever seen. He also gets one of the biggest laughs of the night with a newly imported Neighbours joke.
Mitzi, as Tick is known in costume, is a tranny with a secret, a family that his friends know nothing about. They have their own troubles, with the Australian creator of the role, Tony Sheldon playing Bernadette who suffers an unquiet soul as he awaits the conclusion of sex change treatment. Completing the trio is a Welsh New South Welshman with a great voice, Oliver Thornton as masochistic exhibitionist Felicia.
The "girls" camp it up to their hearts content, receiving good support from Clive Carter playing bearded Bob a sensitive mechanic and, particularly, from Kanako Nakano. She gets desperately close to stealing the show playing Cynthia. People who have seen the film will instantly remember the diminutive mail order bride's ping-pong ball cabaret, which is toned down for stage purposes. However, the actress's highpoint occurs when a vicious temper hilariously overcomes her character.
The book, co-written by the movie's creator Stephan Elliott, is a kind of simplified version of a not very sophisticated movie plot but primarily a good excuse for a stream of camp jokes. However, despite the lack of depth, when the focus is on transsexual Bernadette it does manage to bring sympathy for the plucky outsider's lonely life.
Visitors will remember the evening for the over the top effects, which allow us to see human cupcakes and paintbrushes as well as symbolic Australian animals. Many will also be entranced by the good-natured singalong quality of the gay jukebox music, exemplified by Kylie but also the happy campers' theme tune, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive.
There is no doubt that the song and dance in the production by original Australian director Simon Phillips will appeal to many and the spectacle should draw in audiences and may well be enough to send them home happy. Whether that will be enough to overcome the drawbacks of a plot that is a watered-down version of the original only time will tell.