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Review Round-up: Priscilla’s Drag Queens Reign

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Move over La Cage aux Folles, there's a new cross-dressing troupe in town. Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical pulled into the West End’s Palace Theatre last night (23 March 2009, previews from 10 March, gala opening 24 March), starring Jason Donovan, Oliver Thornton and Tony Sheldon as three fish-out-of-water friends heading across Australia in their eponymous pink bus.

Adapted from the 1994 Oscar-winning cult film which starred Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp, Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical had its world premiere in Sydney in October 2006. Original cast member Tony Sheldon makes his West End debut as transsexual Bernadette, who together with drag queens Mitzi (Donovan) and Felicia (Adam) embarks on a journey of discovery across the Australian outback.

The soundtrack features a host of dance-floor classics including "I Love the Nightlife", "I Will Survive", “Go West”, "Finally", “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, “Hot Stuff”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and a Kylie Minogue medley.

The stage musical has a book by Allan Scott and Stephan Elliot (writer/director of the film). It’s directed by Simon Phillips, choreographed by Ross Coleman and designed by Brian Thomson (who also conceived the on-stage bus), with costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, lighting by Nick Schlieper, sound by Michael Waters and make-up by Cassie Hanlon.

All-told, Priscilla fared better with overnight critics than many of its 'jukebox musical' forebears, though there’s no real consensus, with star ratings from two up to five adorning this morning's papers. Critics generally fall into one of two 'camps': those who welcomed the show’s “loud, lewd and lavish” attitude, and those who viewed it as an overly “synthetic spectacle”. There was general agreement when it came to the performances of the leads, particularly with regards to the “touching presence” of Tony Sheldon as Bernadette, and Jason Donovan who, if slightly “underpowered” for some, brings the “right air of paternal longing” to Mitzi/Tick. But the real star of the show for most is Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel's elaborate costumes – described by The Times’ Benedict Nightingale as “the most outrageous … I have yet encountered”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - “Simon Phillips’ production poses various logistical questions, such as: how do they cope with 500 costumes, and who dealt with the copyright minefield of songs ranging from Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 'I Say a Little Prayer' and Joni Mitchell’s 'Both Sides Now' through to gay disco perennials like 'I Will Survive' and 'Macarthur Park' with its cake left out in the rain? … It flaunts its gayness in an old-fashioned, one might say provincial, manner. Maybe crudity doesn’t matter in a stage full of unashamedly over-the-top frocks, tall wigs and pouting divas. For my money, the divine girl trio – Zoe Birkett, Kate Gillespie and Emma Lindars - are the best things in the show, descending from the heavens like baroque opera queens.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “At a time when escapist musicals are all the rage, here’s a rare one that takes you happily out of yourself and into daring places your wildest fantasies might never have dreamed of visiting. Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical should, therefore, do an absolutely roaring trade, and not just among the young and gay-friendly … From the first moments when three divas hang suspended high above a silver-spangled bridge and belt out 'Downtown', the show never loses its spectacular, helter-skelter momentum of songs to which the drag queens lip-sync. They all dance to Ross Coleman’s pugnacious choreography in an ever wilder outrage of costumes, right down to ridiculous belle époque corseted dresses and hats variously piled heavy with fruit, flowers and feathers: Simon Phillips’ production artfully exploits the fact that drag queenery relies on excess and exaggeration.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) - “The West End stage is currently filled with men in frocks. But, compared with the warmth and joie de vivre of La Cage aux Folles, this musical version of the famous 1994 Australian movie feels like a synthetic spectacle … The film had a good deal going for it: quaint charm, the Australian landscape, and a performance of amazing grace from Terence Stamp as the lonely Bernadette. But everything in the stage version is underscored and overstated ... Jason Donovan lends Tick the right air of paternal longing. The highly experienced Tony Sheldon swishes and swirls expertly as Bernadette, and delivers his one-liners with aplomb - without ever capturing the quiet dignity on which Terence set his stamp. And Oliver Thornton brings out the callowness of the young Adam and mimes to ‘Semper Libera’ from La Traviata with suitable gaiety.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times - “Let’s reassure those who recall the film of Priscilla, or helped to make it the cult it remains, that the stage version has everything, maybe more than everything, they could reasonably expect … There’s energy, fun, tunefulness and, above all, the most outrageous swirl of costumes that I ... have yet encountered. The lead performances are fine. If Sheldon hasn’t the sense of long-endured pain that Terence Stamp brought to Bernadette in the film, he’s still a humane, touching presence. And at least when he’s in his paternal mode, Donovan also brings a little gravity and texture to a potentially bland character.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - "Those who like their musicals tasteful, subtle, and preferably written by Stephen Sondheim and directed by Trevor Nunn should give this wildly entertaining new import from Australia a wide berth. It makes Mamma Mia! seem like something by Chekhov ... At the Palace Theatre, I’m delighted to report, an insanely euphoric and wildly contagious vulgarity prevails. It’s ten times more enjoyable than the screen version ... Simon Phillips’ production has a driving energy and a palpable mission to delight; the costumes and wigs are almost insanely over the top and feature so many feathers one begins to fear for the survival of the ostrich as a species; even the bus Priscilla is an ingeniously mechanised and cunningly designed delight."

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (five stars) - “Some of the jokes are as corny as Fray Bentos beef and, this being Australian humour, nobody gives a XXXX about polite language. Kanako Nakano’s show-stopping turn as a Thai bride doing unspeakable things with ping-pong balls is a benchmark for the level of humour: it really isn’t Oscar Wilde. But all wrapped up as a shiny, pink-bowed package, this sumptuously dressed show works gloriously, with its wigtastic parade of ever more jaw-dropping costumes an utter feast for the eye. Loud, lewd and lavish, it’s about as subtle as a smack in the teeth with a didgeridoo, but who cares when it’s this much fun?”

    - by Theo Bosanquet

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