Priscilla, Queen of the Desert Offers Thoughtful, Flamboyant Fun

Reviewed by Iris Winston

Photo: Maria Vartanova

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (The Musical)
Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Musical arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen ‘Spud’ Murphy
Developed for the stage by Simon Phillips
Based on the movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
TotoToo Theatre
Directed by Michael Gareau

It’s camp, caring, charming and costumed — Oh boy! Is it costumed!

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (The Musical) is a highly entertaining jukebox musical that shoehorns 27 pop and disco favourites — especially drag performance favourites — from the 1970s and 80s into a rickety bus (Priscilla) traveling across the Australian desert from Sidney to Alice Springs.

The 1994 Oscar-winning movie, scripted by Stephan Elliott (who also co-wrote the book for the stage musical with Allan Scott) enjoyed surprise success, followed by similar hit status for the 2006 Tony-winning musical, based on the movie.

The storyline — a little thin, but you stop caring about that very early on — features two drag queens and a transgender woman, who was once a legend as an entertainer on the drag circuit. Tick (Mitzi) persuades the recently widowed Bernadette and the bitchy young drag queen Adam (Felicia) to join him on a road trip across the Australian outback for a gig at a casino in Alice Springs. He does not mention that his wife owns the casino or that his main goal is to meet his eight-year-old son. Meanwhile, Bernadette is still hoping to find true love and Adam dreams of performing a medley of songs by Australian soap opera star Kylie Minogue on top of Uluru/Ayers Rock (a sacred site to Aboriginal peoples in that part of Australia). The dream engenders the line “a cock in a frock on a rock,” a clue to the tone of some of the show’s one-liners.

The road trip is the backdrop for a series of stylish production numbers, a type of Greek chorus provided by three singing divas, a flamboyantly costumed ensemble and an underlying message of accepting people as they are.

As delivered by director Michael Gareau, musical director John McGovern and choreographer Paddy Allen McCarthy for the TotoToo Theatre production, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has heart and warmth, as well as being packed with fun and costuming splendour of over-the-top oufits.

The talented cast at the wheel of Priscilla is clearly having a ball in every scene from lip-synched opera aria to country hoedown. Despite the change of mood, even the scenes portraying homophobia, though jolting, work.

Most important in creating and maintaining a degree of depth in a show that could be brightly coloured fluff only is the characterization of the principals and, in this production, all three shine equally brightly.

As Tick, Kraig-Paul Proulx conveys his pain and uncertainty as he worries about how his son will respond to his father’s lifestyle as effectively as he performs such numbers as I Love the Nightlife, True Colours and We Belong. 

Jamie Rice, as Adam, the youngest of the trio, is effective in searching for adventure and trouble and snapping out bitchy remarks. The highlight of his performance is as the silver-clad opera singer lip-synching his comic way through Sempre Libera.

And the always reliable Réjean Mayer-Dinelle is convincing in the difficult role of the transgendered Bernadette, even when she turns from ladylike to tough in a rough bar scene, and equally effective in seeking romance or as singer or lip-syncher throughout the show.

Among the rest of the well-chosen cast, there are only good and better performances. Among the standouts are the eye-catching performances by ensemble members Douglas Connors and Spencer Cripps, by Stefania Wheelhouse as the sulky country girl and by Sam Smith as the helpful mechanic, who tags along on the road trip.

The trio of divas, Erin Connelly, Jasmine Lee and Katie Shapiro, add interest as well as fine singing and Lee has great fun with her second role as mail-order bride Cynthia.

On the technical side, costumes by designer Lu-Anne Connell are front and centre and they come into their own through backing from Franco Scarfy Pang’s lighting and Christy Bindhardt’s set design.

Altogether, riding the rainbow with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert offers flamboyant fun with an underlying thread of sadness that gives food for thought.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert continues at the University of Ottawa’s Academic Hall to May 27.

Director: Michael Gareau

Musical director: John McGovern

Choreographer: Paddy Allen McCarthy

Set: Cindy bindhardt

Costumes: Lu-Anne Connell

Lighting: Franco Scarfy Pang

Sound: Justin Ladelpha

Cast:

The Divas…………………………………Erin Connelly, Jasmine Lee, Katie Shapiro

Miss Understanding………………………Conor Bradshaw

Tick (Mitzi)……………………………….Kraig-Paul Proulx

Farrah……………………………………..Spencer Cripps

Bernadette…………………………………Réjean Dinelle-Mayer

Adam (Felicia)…………………………….Jamie Rice

Errol/Country boy/Jules.………………….Bryan Jesmer

Shirley/Country girl……………………….Stefania Wheelhouse

Jimmy……………………………………..Douglas Connors

Bob………………………………………..Sam Smith

Benji………………………………………Cooper Dunn

Marion…………………………………….Katie Shapiro

Cynthia……………………………………Jasmine Lee

Ensemble:

Suzanne Amey, Conor Bradshaw, Douglas Connors, Luc Cormier, Spencer Cripps, Michael David, Marc Desjardins, Antonio DiRenzio, Katie Frenette, Bryan Jesmer, Beverley Soifer, Michael Tower, Sam Smith, Stefania Wheelhouse

Orchestra:

Conductor/keyboard………………………..John McGovern

Keyboard……………………………………Wendy Berkelaar

Reed…………………………………………Mike Tremblay

Trumpet/Flugelhorn…………………………Nicholas Dyson

Guitar……………………………………….Craig Kennedy

Bass…………………………………………Tom McMahon

Drums………………………………………..Pierre Huneault


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