At one point during "Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical" Kylie Minogue is described as a triple threat. Someone who can’t sing, can’t dance and can’t act. Which actually serves as a pretty fair description for much of the musical. With several singers punching above their weight, acting that often borders on pantomime and sloppy dancing that barely achieves even moderate synchronicity it can often look like a lazy mess. And yet, like the triple threat herself, ”Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical" can also be that little bit gorgeous. As well as somewhat irresistible at times.
Adapted for the stage from the 1994 movie The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical" follows the trials and tribulations of three drag queens as they undertake a road trip through the badlands of the Australian outback. Heading to Alice Springs in their less than sturdy tour bus, Mitzi, Bernadette, and Felicia encounter trying ordeals and prejudice along the way, few more trying than each other. But with a child, a new lover, and Ayers Rock to be discovered, they’d better buckle up tight. For it’s gonna be one hell of a bumpy ride to stay true to who they really are.
With book by Stephen Elliott and Allan Scott leaving a little to be desired at times, the burlesque style opening is saturated in so much music it takes awhile for story, and characters, to find their feet. Throughout, a hefty rotation of retro tunes are constantly called upon to do the emotional heavy lifting, and aren’t always up to the task. Yet when they hit the mark, they dovetail beautifully, and cleverly, into the slowly emerging story to craft some first rate moments. A story where late night picnics and some scene stealing ping pong deliver poignancy and adult good fun, both liberally scattered in equal measure throughout.
While the West End and Broadway productions won Olivier and Tony awards for original designers Tim Chapell and Lizzy Gardiner, here designers Charles Cusick-Smith and Phil R Daniels find set and costumes being a hit and miss affair. With the cramped, corrugated set heroically saved by Ben Cracknell’s sumptuous lights. Throughout, director Ian Talbot doesn’t have his best day at the office, with many cast looking adrift amidst a sea of compositional chaos. As are several dancers, resembling a bunch of enthusiastic strangers trying to learn the same moves at the same time. Working off Tom Jackson Greaves’s disappointingly lacklustre choreography which looks like it might have been scrawled on a paper napkin and left out in the rain, like the cake in McArthur’s Park.
A pity in places, for song and dance routines are constantly kicking off at the slightest prompt, often looking short on snap and spectacle. Reaching for recognisable gay classics to achieve a kind of cliched cheesiness. Yet who doesn't like a bit of cheese now and then? Particularly with a little wine and charcuterie. If Joe McFadden’s Mitzi provides the over the top cheese, the charcuterie is superbly supplied by pretty boy Nick Hayes as Felicia. Meanwhile, the vino veritas that is wise woman Bernadette sees Miles Western deliver a terrifically solid performance that holds everything together, elevating events above the dismissively throwaway.
At one point Felicia accuses Bernadette of having once been a ‘flaming fairy with a feather boa’ rather than a real burlesque act. Post Torch Sing Trilogy, post Ru Paul’s Drag Race, you might accuse "Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical" of much the same thing. Today drag embodies a whole new level of sophistication, as does burlesque, with standards that insist on a lot more than glitz for glamour. The generous might say "Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical" is trying to honour the roots of modern drag by reflecting the conditions when it was first screened over twenty-five years ago. The less generous might see it as a cynical exercise in recycling retro with a tacky garishness drag and burlesque are trying to outgrow. Whatever side of the argument you fall down on "Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical" is still a celebration of self-expression in the face of adversity, where fabulous conquers all. Packed with smart innuendos, razor sharp bitchiness, and enough heart tugging moments to keep you singing and clapping. A glorious car crash of camped up kitsch, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical" sparkles with joy. You just can’t get it out of your head.
“Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical,” book by Stephen Elliott and Allan Scott, produced by Mark Goucher, Jason Donovan, Gavin Kalin, Matthew Gale, Laurence Myers in association with Nullarbor Productions and MGM Stage, runs at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until February 8.
For more information, visit Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.