by Lynn on November 15, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

That of course is “I WILL SURVIVE” one of the songs of the musical PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, which opened last night in Toronto on its way to Broadway. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us how she survived the opening and whether she recommends that we see it.

Hi Lynn. Priscilla has taken a long journey to get to this point hasn’t it?

Yes, it’s based on the wonderful 1994 cult film The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It was then turned it into a stage musical with the shorter title, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It opened in Australia in 2006. Then another production opened in London England where I saw it last year. And now it’s opened here in Toronto with an almost new cast, and a revised book, on its way to Broadway.

Briefly, what’s the story and who’s Priscilla?

Simply, three buddies take a road trip in a bus across Australia. Only the buddies are three drag queens two are gay and one is a transsexual. The neon-coloured bus is named Priscilla. One of the drag queens, named Tick gets a call from his wife to come to her club half-way across Australia, to do a show, and also to see their 6 year old son he’s never seen. Tick realized after he was married that he was gay, so he left, to lead his own life. He takes the offer and coerces two friends to do the act with him, not telling them the reason.

They are Felicia (Adam) an over-active drag queen who always dreamed of climbing to the top of Ayres Rock in full drag and belting out Madonna songs. And Bernadette an elegant transsexual of a certain age who goes along for the ride, because he latest boy-toy lover has died.

Along the way they get into trouble with a bunch of homophobic bullies; the bus breaks down and a macho mechanic named Bob saves the day; and secrets are shared. They also manage to meet people who dance up a storm at every turn.

It’s easy to suggest a road trip in film, how do they realize it in the production?

The director, Simon Phillips and his design team are very clever. We see a cross-section of the bus with Bernadette driving, as sign posts travel across the stage suggest movement. There is also a varied assortment of road kill that goes by. Irreverent and over-the-top are two ways to describe this show.

How so?

It’s a very technical show. Set pieces rise, lower, spin and three singers often float down from the flies. There are explosions of confetti that burst out over the audience; something is done with a ping-pong ball, which I won’t even begin to describe; there is an homage to the various animals, flora, fauna and insects of Australia and cupcakes. All done in the eye popping costumes of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. They glitter, shimmer, billow, and leave you breathless at their invention.

With such attention grabbing costumes, do they overpower the cast?

Definitely not. This cast is wonderful, and in many cases stronger than the one I saw in London. As Bernadette, Tony Sheldon is a marvel. He’s been with the show since Australia. He gives an artful lesson in grace, dignity and femininity. He’s not effeminate—he’s feminine—Huge difference. This is a stunning performance.

Canada’s own C. David Johnson plays Bob with a quiet manliness and gentle humour. (An aside, there was a technical glitch last night. They had to lower the curtain to fix it. As Mr. Johnson was leaving the stage he Said, “THEY PAID A LOT OF MONEY, FOR THE BUS….” Brought the house down).

As Felicia (Adam), Nick Adams is a ball of campy energy. And as Tick, Will Swenson is sweet, but at times hesitant and a bit mumbly which I am sure will be corrected as the show goes on.

When you hear about a musical about drag queens we might assume it’s a show for a niche audience. Is that a fair assessment?

No I think that diminishes the appeal of the show. For all the double entendres and the innuendo it’s really a story about friendship and finding the love of your life whether it’s a son or a life partner. We can all identify with that. PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT is a blast of joy. We all can do with joy in our lives and At the moment, PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT is the easiest way to get lots of it.

PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre.