Venue: Capitol Theatre (Sydney NSW), May 13 – Jul 19, 2018
Book: Stephan Elliott, Allan Scott
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Lena Cruz, Euan Doidge, Robert Grubb, George Holahan-Cantwell, David Harris, Adèle Parkinson, Emma Powell, Tony Sheldon
Images by Ben Symons
Priscilla Queen Of The Desert is an iconic work about homophobia, or more accurately, the resilience of LGBT people in Australia, who have managed to grow from strength to strength against all odds, in the face of pervasive, persistent and severe prejudice. The bus takes our three protagonists across the breadth of half the continent, encountering abuse and humiliation at every stop. To watch spirited people triumph over obstacles and injustice, is always gratifying, but to see it all happen in a musical with shiny twentieth-century pop tunes, is quite the sensation.
There is much to love about the show. Brian Thomson’s production design, Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s costumes and Ben Moir’s wigs, are all spectacular and unabashedly flamboyant, a real feast for the eyes, in a theatrical moment that provides an escape from our beige humdrum. The central story that reunites a gay man with his young son, is thoroughly moving, a soulful addition to the already poignant and universal narrative, of having to live out one’s own truth. The original film, on which the musical is based, is however, well over two decades old, and the baggage of its sexist and racist dimensions have only become more pronounced with time. Theatre, unlike the format of the motion picture, is capable of endless evolution. It is understandable that the biggest gags of the film have to be retained, but their political incorrectness require a degree of modulation or better yet, radical revisions, which the production conveniently disregards.
One can think of many women, bankable stars of the stage, who would be perfect for the role of Bernadette, but Tony Sheldon is once again cast as the Sydney local trans legend. He is precise and polished, an incandescent presence, but we are now in a new age of trans identities, and misgendering of this nature, is distracting, and certainly no longer acceptable. Euan Doidge is interminably effervescent, and breathtakingly beautiful, as Felicia the younger drag queen who learns things the hard way. His abilities as singer and dancer are thrilling to witness, and there is no denying the relief in seeing a person of colour as a lead, in a show known for its history of excruciating ethnic representations. The infamous ping pong scene is kept intact, but Lena Cruz’s feisty performance as Cynthia has us cheering for the character’s sense of liberated and vibrant autonomy.
David Harris cuts through the noisy glitz as Tick, impressive in his ability to convey emotional intensity, for several scenes that help prevent the show from disintegrating into meaningless froth. The father-son chemistry in later sequences are unforgettable, with fabulous child performer George Holahan-Cantwell offering the perfect balance, especially moving in the “Always On My Mind / I Say A Little Prayer” number, delivering a genuine instance of delicacy, in the midst of all things bold and brassy.
The show opens in Sydney officially, and auspiciously, on May 17, International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia 2018. This year, same-sex couples in Australia are finally able to marry, and the gay rights movement finds itself approaching the culmination of its objectives. In Priscilla, the prejudices on display that are most agonising, are no longer about gay men. It is time to look at the behaviour on the Australian stage, towards trans people and ethnic minorities. These may just be unintended sub-plots of a show that bears our national pride, but the passage of time can turn things from well-meaning to wilful neglect. We all wish to belong, and those who are no longer the pariah, should know to work for a bigger expanse of inclusivity and unity.