Priscilla Queen of the Desert continues at the New Wimbledon Theatre, London until 10 October, and then touring.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★
Jukebox musicals get a bad rap. True, all too often they are opportunistic, cynical exploitations appealing to an undemanding audience, with as many corners cut as the producers think they can get away with. But when crafted with love and care, a jukebox selection can be just as thrilling, moving and involving as any other musical theatre show. Singin’ in the Rain is a perfect example of a jukebox musical constructed from composers’ back catalogue – but as a show that appropriates disparate hits from a genre and an era, there is little better than Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
What helps is the show’s solid book – written by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, based on Elliott’s 1994 screenplay. The story of jaded Sydney drag queen Tick, aka Mitzi Mitosis (Jason Donovan, who shares the role with Duncan James on the UK tour) who embarks on a road trip with two other drag queens to put on a show in his wife’s Alice Springs casino, has a hefty mix of over-the-top caricature and strong human interest, of fantasy drag life rubbing uncomfortable shoulders with very real homophobia.
But the show’s biggest appeal is in its interpretation of classic disco numbers, often with the show’s leggy ensemble in a variety of gaudy, outrageous outfits. Hitting many gay standards – including ‘I Will Survive’, ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’ and ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, as well as a liberal sprinkling of Kylie’s back catalogue – most numbers are crafted to elevate the book’s emotional arc. And it is the way in which the disco numbers enhance the narrative that helps cement Priscilla’s place at the top of the jukebox pantheon.
Another significant contributor to the show’s appeal is the visual content. From the silver-clad trio of divas (Lisa-Marie Holmes, Laura Mansell and Catherine Mort) who fly in at regular intervals like an angelic Greek chorus, to the drag queens’ increasingly outlandish outfits, the show’s costumes are a technicolor riot. Some concessions have been made to touring practicalities with the current production – Priscilla, the eponymous bus which Tick and his colleagues Felicia (Adam Bailey) and Bernadette (Simon Green) traverse the outback, is rather simplified – and much less pink – than the West End’s technological set piece. And the final climb of Ayers Rock, which formed such a symbolic conclusion to the show’s run at the Palace Theatre, is missing altogether.
But with a strong cast, such sacrifices are gracefully smoothed over. Donovan feels more world-weary and jaded as Tick than he did in the West End, which makes for a more believable character. His persona contrasts well with Bailey’s boisterous Adam/Felicia and Green’s delicate turn as ageing transexual Bernadette. The dynamic between the trio is a little less biting than either the film or in the original West End cast, but none the worse for that.
The supporting ensemble, led by Philip Childs as the mechanic who becomes the trio’s number one fan, helps cement Priscilla Queen of the Desert as one of the most enjoyable touring productions on the road right now. For all the glitter, the fake eyelashes and ridiculous outfits, it is a tale with enormous heart.