Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: Brilliant production of an important play

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

Categories: Community Theatre

Photo: Maria Vartanova

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.


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