Three drag queens in a bus conquering the outback made such a happy and optimistic film that after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 some American cinemas revived Priscilla just to cheer people up. American -“ and Australian audiences -“ weren’t put off by its underlying call for gay acceptance.
Simon Phillips, the director of the musical based on the film, believes Priscilla was successful because this marginalised group of queens was extended the proverbial Aussie fair go and outback tolerance. And of course, gay or straight, Aussies are meant to love their drag.
There is plenty to love in Priscilla: The Musical. The stars are the showgirl Aussie icon costumes, designed by the film’s Oscar-winning designers, Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, but here returning with a far, far bigger budget. The now revered bus also gets applause, as it opens up at the sides and changes colours like a desert chameleon.
Perhaps though the biggest stars are those old disco hits, the gay bar anthems with which these queens parade out into the desert, joined by choruses who spring from nowhere.
Regulars are three Wagnerian drag spirits who drop from the heavens without rhyme or reason, and there’s another bigger chorus always ready to strut astonishing costumes at the first sound of a number. It’s like the Imperial Hotel turned epic -“ and often with the same lack of dramatic cohesion.
Holding it together are the three squabbling drags. As the lonesome transsexual Bernadette, Tony Sheldon is magnetic, and in drag looks -“ as you do -“ like his mother, Toni Lamond. Jeremy Stanford finds truth but fails to move us much in the role of Tick, a showgirl and a Dad. And following in the charismatic steps of Guy Pearce is Daniel Scott as the bitchy Felicia, with more sass then sense.
All three on that bus have an emotional journey to make. The script is witty but has no room to explore all these journeys, as it leaps incongruously from one vaguely relevant cover song to another.
By the second half, the cut and paste quality of the drama and the songs begins to sag further, and our busload of heroines is left straining for traction.
What is unbeatable though is the fabulous joy and theatrical exuberance. A new Broadway musical has months of out-of-town try-outs before actually making it to Broadway. Wait a while and Priscilla will bring even bigger rewards.
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical is at the Lyric Theatre, Star City.