TotoToo’s Priscilla a transport of delight

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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

In a way, Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert revels in its own ramshackle, cheeky improbability. That’s what made it so endearing back in 1994 when it lumbered onto cinema screens as a delightful road movie. We were treated to the spectacle of two drag queens, along with an aging transgendered woman who serves as both nanny and mentor to them, journeying across the Australian outback for a performance gig at the remote Northern Territory town of Alice Springs.

It’s these same qualities that make TotoToo Theatre’s rambunctious production of the stage version such a transport of delight. “Priscilla” is the name bestowed on the rattletrap bus that provides this trio with their somewhat precarious mode of transportation: a garish thing of shreds and patches, it is the undoubted highlight of Christy Bindhardt’s mischievous set design and sets the tone for this musical’s aura of genial self-mockery. As for Lu-Anne Connell’s whirlwind unleashing of some 170 splashy, swishy, cheerfully outrageous costumes — well, they are ultimately the irrepressible raison d’etre for this show and must be seen to believed.

But we’re not getting 100 per cent escapism here. There’s a moment when ugly homophobic sentiments are scrolled on the side of the bus and another when the younger of the two drag queens makes the mistake of swivelling flamboyantly into a distinctly macho bar and falls victim to gay-bashing. Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert is essentially a kindly, sweet-natured piece of entertainment about the need for people to be accepted for what they are. The over-the-top visual look and high-camp exuberance — expertly engineered here by director Michael Gareau, musical director John McGovern and choreographer Paddy Allen McCarthy — may be insisting that the show not be taken too seriously, but the gravity of the material’s underlying message remains secure. At its warm and urgent heart, Priscilla is a plea for understanding and tolerance.

Furthermore, it’s never as simple as it may seem. The central characters are human beings, with genuine emotions and needs and fallibilities. Jamie Rice is excellent as Adam, aka Felicia, the junior member of the travelling trio, and has a high-octane comic triumph as a silver-clad diva working herself into orgasmic frenzy while lip-synching to Verdi’s Sempre Libera. But this Adam is also narcissistic and immature, painfully self-absorbed, and more prone to a self-centred pout than he is to finding true empathy with another human being. Rice is giving us the quintessential youngster who needs to grow up.

Then there’s the ever dependable Kraig-Paul Proux as Tick, aka Mitzi. Tick, the instigator of this chaotic journey through the outback, has a hidden agenda: his wife owns the casino at which the drag queens will be performing, and he’ll be reuniting with the eight-year-old son who’s a stranger to him. Proulx’s funny-sensitive characterization is beautifully rendered — showing yearning and need, and full of anxieties about whether the child he loves will accept him for what he is.

Finally, there is Rejean Dinelle-Mayer’s marvellous work as the transgendered Bernadette, recently widowed yet resolute in her identity, emotionally needful but as immovable as a rock when a strong presence is needed. The moment when a formidable Bernadette takes control of a rowdy saloon is a show highlight.

But there’s also the sense of Dinelle-Mayer fully inhabiting the character provided him by Stephan Elliott in his script for both the film and stage versions. Terence Stamp, one of the most macho of British actors, played Bernadette in the movie, and in an interview at the time, he stressed that in preparing for the role he had to dispense with such adjectives as “gay” or “straight” because they simply didn’t apply. “This was not a pantomime dame,” Stamp said. “This was not Tootsie. This was not Mrs. Doubtfire. I was playing a full transsexual. I was playing a woman in a man’s body psychologically.” This came through in Stamp’s performance, and it also provides the essential foundation in Dinelle-Mayer’s performance for TotoToo.

The show’s central trio of performers is supported by a spirited ensemble whose members are always ready to put their best foot — or, if demanded, their worst foot — forward in a show that gets essential but idiosyncratic momentum from music that constitutes a raiding expedition on standard hits, past and present: only in the giddy universe of this show would you find Verdi’s La Traviatia, Jerome Kern’s A Fine Romance, Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park and Freddie Perren’s Shake Your Groove Thing sharing the same musical menu.

There are some neatly defined supporting performances — most notably from Sam Smith as a courtly mechanic with a sentimental thing for drag artists, and from Jasmine Lee, volcanically funny as a rebellious mail-order bride. Lee, Erin Connelly and Katie Shapiro also make a memorable contribution as the chorus of singing divas who pop up constantly throughout the show to make sure we’re still happily engaged with what is happening.

And of course we are engaged. Priscilla is too much of a winner to deserve anything less from us.

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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