Review by Kellie Warner
Be prepared as the Gold Coast may well have a shortage of sequins and glitter in the coming days, as last night was the opening night of Priscilla Queen of The Desert The Musical at The Star Gold Coast. The dazzling array of sparkle in all colours, jaw-dropping sequined gowns, feather boas, wigs almost to the ceiling, and gorgeously clad drag queens were as far as the eye could see, and I’m just talking about the audience!
Yes, Priscilla is back in Australia! If anything is going to get us out of our post-pandemic slump, then it’s this treat. It has been almost 30 years since the cinematic masterpiece hit our screens. The beloved story of two drag queens and a transgender woman travelling through outback Australia on the iconic bus, christened Priscilla, still tugs at our heartstrings and gets us up dancing.
The musical was written by Stephan Elliott & Allan Scott and first premiered in 2006 in Sydney and has since travelled as far as the UK and the USA. The much-loved musical with a real Australian feel travelled the world and now comes home, to delight us once again.
Trevor Ashley has been a star on stage and screen in Australia for over twenty years and his connection to Priscilla goes way back. A Drag Queen in the noughties, he met and became friends with Stephen Elliott and then jumped at the chance to perform in the original production. He created the role of Miss Understanding and played her over 600 times. Who else could have directed this production with such precision?
This production of Priscilla has its own ground-breaking moment even before it hit the stage. The perfect vehicle for the musical theatre debut of Vonni, a real-life superstar of Les Girls, who has lived the Priscilla story in real life. This sees an incredible move forward in a production that was always looking to champion diversity in that Vonni is the first transgender woman to play the transgender character of Bernadette. This is a move that the producers should absolutely be commended for.
Vonni brings real maturity and elegance to the role of Bernadette and is the queen of one-liners and perfect putdowns. The character reminds me of Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess of Grantham in her ability to put people in their place. Though even Dame Maggie Smith won’t mind me saying, the countess never looked quite as good as Bernadette while saying them!
There is something of a local theme to the casting. Keane Fletcher as Anthony ‘Tick’ Belrose was Tweed Heads born and raised and Jarrod Moore who plays Adam/Felicia is a Brisbane boy. Both lend their own interpretations to these iconic roles and are not found wanting.
Keane has a voice to tame Greek Gods and Jarrod Moore camps it up to just the right degree. He was born to play Felicia and brings a vivacity to the character which never feels forced.
Steven Tandy displayed why he is so esteemed as a star of Australian film, screen, and TV. It must seem like a huge ask to be able to shine, whilst wearing work overalls surrounded by sequins and award-winning over-the-top costumes, but Steven Tandy managed it. His depiction of Bob will become a fan favourite. He managed to inhabit the lovable but incredibly lonely outback character displaying a raw vulnerability alongside humour.
One of Australia’s greatest vocalists, Paulini as a diva was truly a standout. She sang those hits as though her life depended on it, all while looking like a sparkly disco ball. The silver sequined dresses the Divas wore for the first part of the show seemed capable of blinding someone as the lights danced off them, sending shards of sparkle around the theatre.
I must mention a few other performers that took their roles and ran with them, such as Leonard Mickelo who played Farrah/Jimmy. Leonard is a descendant of the Kulalli and Bidjara clans. Their performance as Farrah was memorable and it is fitting that an indigenous person should be inhabiting a role in this production. Also, in the small but pivotal role of Marion, Emily Jade O’Keeffe, Gold Coasts’ much loved 102.9 Hot Tomato radio breakfast show co-host, killed it.
I would love to name every single person in the ensemble, but alas cannot. You be the judge yourself when you go, could you dance in heels wearing a giant cupcake? Absolute stars, every single one of them.
The songs we know and love were performed with obvious enthusiasm by all and many had a whooping audience laughing and singing simultaneously. ‘Go West’ is always a favourite, and ‘I Will Survive’, and ‘I love the Nightlife’ never seems to get old.
Though often it was the more soothing, endearing songs that slammed into our hearts such as Bernadette, Tick and Adam coming together with ‘True Colours’, Bob’s gentle ‘A Fine Romance’ and a tear-jerking rendition of ‘We Belong’.
“I’ve waited all my life for this!” An excited Tick exclaims wearing his pyjamas (covered in sparkles … of course!) as he spies Bob and Bernadette flat out asleep, amid a ruined cake and empty bottle of champagne. I gasped, possibly aloud if the look of the woman next to me is anything to go by. How had I forgotten this song was in this musical? “Someone left the cake on in the rain!” Tick laughs and opens his mouth to sing. In that microsecond my brain explodes into a refrain … ‘They are going to sing it! Yes!’
So, needless to say, my favourite number was ‘MacArthur Park’. Tick’s performance is superb with Paulini, once again on top of that bus (it’s basically a second stage and it works so incredibly well) belting it out as well. The ensemble dressed as cakes, the lighting splashing dazzling almost fluorescent green all over the stage and the audience made for a spectacular number. The sweet green icing was flowing down everywhere, and it was amazing. I had also waited all my life for this, I just hadn’t realised until last night.
Dancing and singing on top of a bus and a prop version no less doesn’t sound glamourous but the Divas, as well as Felicity with the famous opera routine, made it seem like a goal to strive for. Number one on the bucket list for budding musical performers – to one day, look as amazing as Jarrod Moore did lip-synching to opera atop a bus. Don’t ever give up on that dream.
There aren’t enough words to fully describe the costumes in this musical, they are numerous and fantastic. Some are complete works of art in themselves, and it is almost impossible to pick a favourite. The costumes used were the Oscar, Tony, Olivier and Helpmann award-winning original costumes and it was a highlight simply viewing them.
If I had to pick, the costumes that first flashed across my mind when I woke this morning were the glamourous over-the-top dresses in the finale that came together to make the Opera House. The nod to Marie Antoinette was genius. Yes, this performer is a queen, thank you very much, in fact, they all are!
There is more to this show than sequins, wigs, dancing, and singing. There are some brutal themes played out in amongst the hilarity. We have come very far in terms of diversity and acceptance but there is still a way to go, which is why this musical is still so powerful.
Diversity is such a key theme in this story, a person would have to own a cold, dark heart to not be moved by some of the more powerful, emotional moments. Just like the movie, we must stand by and watch terrible homophobia, while some people might also rethink their attitudes to people living in the outback, our First Nations people, and of course, transgender people as the musical gives us nudges about stereotypes and the importance of acceptance.
But on the plus side, we have a beautiful romance, growing friendships and the notion of the importance of family. Not just those we are biologically related to, though Tick fearing fatherhood and his love for his son despite that is incredibly relatable. But found family can be as important and those who love us and accept us should be treasured as such.
This musical has been and always will be a showcase of Australiana. The homage to all things Australian at the end is something to behold. There are nods to Australian popular culture cleverly dispersed throughout. Mothers and children all over Australia can breathe a sigh of relief as Bluey manages to escape Bernadette’s rather haphazard driving. Phew!
Oh, come on, when is she going to mention Carlotta? I hear you, but I needed to make you wait for the best, right? Carlotta needed to simply appear for the audience to go wild. She played Shirley in a performance that takes place in Bob’s head as he reminisces of his time viewing the legendary Les Girls show. They couldn’t resist the opportunity to use this time to pay homage to the woman who really started it all, the greatest Les Girl of them all, Carlotta herself. A montage of her best moments from back in the day played on the screen behind her. It was an adrenaline shot of nostalgia that I am certain was felt by everyone. According to the program, this little adventure has made Carlotta rethink her stage retirement. Yes, please! Carlotta, we need more than just this snippet. Please come back to the stage! I know I speak for everyone.
The set was cleverly done, even though there were obvious restraints due to a smaller stage than usual. Screens as a backdrop displayed scenery flashing past to make it appear the bus was moving. Filled with a few humorous signs, and gorgeous scenery every Australian can be proud of. Once again, the teary nostalgia and humour meld together.
A great musical will transport you into the world they are representing so small mistakes rarely intrude. There were a couple of moments that shocked me out of that world, and I would be remiss not to mention them.
In the first half of the show, there was an issue with the sound and the singing voices competed with the bass of the music. But it didn’t stop people swaying and singing along and was fixed by the second half.
The bus was smaller than in other productions, though I appreciate this would be due to stage limitations. It was a cleverly designed prop with one side appearing as the outside of the bus and the other side open so we could see the characters interacting as they drove along. Bernadette in the driver’s seat managed to perfectly look as though she was driving while also making sure she kept turning to the audience.
But the interior of the bus was a little disappointing. It looked nothing like a bus interior, even one with drag queens inhabiting it. The actors obviously had to face the audience so regular bus seats were out, but I felt the use of canvas directors’ chairs was a poor choice as a substitute.
The bus was on wheels and needed to be turned regularly, often by stunning Moulin Rouge-like performers in heels and huge headdresses. Though at times it was obviously a strain to move the bus, and I almost winced. Though again, I understand that some sort of revolving circle on the floor would have been way out of the budget!
But don’t be deterred, a night spent watching Priscilla will not be wasted, you will laugh, you might cry, and you will prance around your kitchen the next day singing MacArthur Park (or maybe that’s just me?)
Catch Priscilla Queen of The Desert The Musical at The Star Gold Coast until August the 7th.
Purchase your tickets here.