Toto Too never stops outdoing itself and this ultra-energized performance under the direction of Michael Gareau proves it once again. It all glows and glitters with the marvelous costumes of the drag Queen world, (created by designer Lu-Anne Connell ), the stunning singing voices , the excellent acting and Paddy Allen McCarthy’s all-encompassing choreography, take over the original music and lyrics that transgress the established codes of the musical world. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a brilliant monument to a shifting world where every human individual is given a space of one’s own.
Inspired by the 1994 movie Priscilla Queen of the desert, the stage version shifts over to a mise en abyme structure where the performance becomes essentially a cabaret show in Australia. It then goes “on the road” as it were. Tick (Kraig-Paul Proulx), one of the cabaret stars, has decided to l take a long trip across the desert to the Australian outback so he can reconnect with his young son Benji whom he hasn’t seen in eight years. He convinces another drag queen (Felicia – Jamie Rice) and a transgender woman Bernadette (Réjean Dinelle –Mayer) to come along on this adventure. They find a yellow and pink Bus and start off on what becomes fascinating voyage of self-discovery. They meet angry narrow minded people. They meet lovely people, but they never cease spreading a message of strength and optimism. Their iconic dance number “I will survive” says it all as it thrusts the three travel companions into the upper echelons of humanity: their united voices telling us “We belong to the light”, as the spots, the music, and sound effects bathe the three of them in an almost magical glow, (Franco Scarfy Pang’ s lighting effects are extraordinary) lifting them into the the realm of legend along with the wild wigs, the makeup , the costumes that almost became original sculptures .
In a similar way, Tick rediscovers his young Benji in that moving exchange. Daddy reinterprets Elvis Presley ‘ s Always on my Mind, transforming the song into a most tender love moment between father and son.
Kraig-Paul Proulx as Tick is a consummate performer switching from Drag queen dancer and singer to deeply troubled father, shows us the delicate sensitive and versatility of this actor who made us laugh and cry at every turn. A beautiful performance. Also strong was Réjean Dinelle-Mayer as Bernadette (the Terence Stamp role) is also very strong, who is all kitteny and cuddly when she meets Sam but can hand out a good sock in the gut when the nasties in the pub get violent. And fun filled Felicia (James Rice) is the younger companion whose trust in others gets her into big trouble but she is saved by her companions. And she looks fabulous in her long blond wig and red dress in the Hot Stuff number.
The emotional depths of this work come through a mixture of wild playfulness, exploding creativity, in your face defiance, as the medley of known numbers, are woven together to fit the narrative but arranged to give each of the songs a new meaning. The arrangements and orchestrations originally by Stephen ‘Spud’ Murphy, under the musical direction of John McGovern flowed beautifully and often gave us the impression we were hearing the songs for the first time. All singers had mikes, something that enhanced the show because we could hear what they were saying while they maintained the raucous feel of the cabaret show. At times the Ottawa University stage did seem a bit too small for all those goings on but they managed very well in spite of the space.
From a whole pool of surprising talent that rang true throughout the evening, some outstanding performances came to light. The three divas who sing in an ironic opening, how it is raining men, and then continue to appear on stage to become the campy Greek chorus that accompanies our travelling friends, whenever the three on the trip have to lip sync their numbers. All three divas where excellent but Jasmine Lee as Cynthia revealed her excellent musical comedy talent. It all overflowed later as she became the super sexy but oh so frustrated Asian wife of Bob the mechanic(SAM) , her number Pop Muzik was one of the most exciting moments in the show.
Douglas Connors who has various roles in the chorus stands out as an actor-dancer presence and becomes a “ campy aboriginal” replacing the whole tribe of authentic Australian aboriginals in the movie . The flashy costumes and dance numbers on the bus caught the eye of the local Australian indigenous people in the film who really understood what this was all about since they too were targets of narrow minded thinking. In the musical version there is one lone aboriginal figure recreating an authentic tourist experience and getting the dancers to come in with him. The result is chaos, fun, a good will blending all differences, and one of the very meaningful moments in the performance which provided a counter point to the more violent encounters in the local bars. Connors as a performer always drew our gaze because he is an excellent comic actor and he moves so well.
There were so many exciting numbers where the voices, the choreography, the costumes and all the performances , under Gareau’s direction, contributed to a most thrilling experience. Underlying this apparently fun filled event is a deeply serious vision of the world and this sense of human optimism in the face of anger, ignorance and adversity comes bubbling through with great strength. Hat off to Toto Too, Another hit show, and an important show!
Priscilla Queen of the Desert plays at the University of Ottawa – 135 Seraphin-Marion – until May 27. Curtain at 7h30. General Admission Seating: Adult: $30.00, Senior/Student/Artist: $24.00
A production of Toto Too theatre presented though special arrangement with Theatrical Rights Worldwide, New York, www.theatricalrights,com
Book by Stephan Elliot and Allan Scott
Musical arrangements and Orchestrations by Stephen Spud Murphy. Developed for the stage and originally directed by Simon Phillips.