‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ was lively.
Audiences were bopping in their seats from the energy of this fun and upbeat rendition of ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ at Toowoomba’s Empire Theatres. Presented by the Toowoomba Choral Society, this musical shines a light on hardships faced on the road to accepting who you truly are.
Based on the 1994 film by Stephan Elliot, the musical debuted at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney in 2006. After success in Australia, the musical ran for a strong two-year season in West End from 2009, hitting stages on Broadway in 2011. The musical was nominated for various awards, receiving one Helpman Award (nominated for seven), a Laurence Olivier Award (2010), and two Tony awards (2011) in the costume design categories.
Following the journey of two drag queens (Tick and Adam) and a transgender woman (Bernadette) in their pink bus, ‘Priscilla’, the trio travel across Australia to perform at a casino in Alice Springs – managed by Tick’s secret wife (Marion). Along the way, it is revealed to Adam and Bernadette that the intention is not only to help Marion out, but also for Tick to meet his 8-year-old son! Throughout the journey, the group encounters various interesting characters, some with violent homophobic tendencies and others with heartfelt messages of support. Adam, the more innocent of the trio, learns that not everyone is accepting of their lifestyle, and some may wish them harm. The trio’s performance in Alice Springs is a huge success and will go down in history as the first show of its kind at the casino. Tick also finally meets Benji, who is very accepting of his father, and represents the innocence of childhood.
The lighting choices and use of projection in Toowoomba Choral Society’s production really enhanced the storytelling nature of the musical and added mood to particular scenes like the nighttime pub scenes and the long trip on the outback road. Microphones were a bit disappointing, with some performers not turned on until after they had delivered a line or two, and others barely audible. This impacted some of the song quality in sections of the performance.
Fortunately, the musical accompaniment, provided by a nine-piece band led by was fantastic and really added to the live performance of the show. Providing a richer aural experience than a backing track, they ensured the audience was engaged and clapping along.
Careful and considered set choices were made in regards to the pubs/bars, dressing rooms, and bus! Designer Madeleine Barlow used the bar to help set the scene and add levels to the performance, creating interest and ease of sight for the performers. The simple yet clever use of velvet for the mirrors in the dressing room, as well as Marion appearing in the reflection as Tick answered her phone call, was well executed. Then there was the bus!
A quick but subtle change from the old to the newly painted bus was impressive, as was the decor and dressing of the interior. The set-piece was embraced with some acting occurring inside the bus; however, from some sections of the audience, only one or two actors were visible. These scenes would have been more effective if all three leads could be viewed.
Costuming, also by Barlow, was incredible! This technical aesthetic component of the show was polished, vibrant, and fantastically executed. The variety, colour diversity, head-pieces, and sheer volume of costume changes were impressive. All the dancing in stiletto heels – what a challenge – was pulled off superbly. This, altogether, had the audience “ohhh” and “ahhh”-ing at the spectacle. Hair, makeup, and costuming were such a visual pleasure in this show, a real treat for the eyes.
Mary Quade’s direction of the show was slick, blocking choices were tight and appropriate for the scenes and the use of the space was effective throughout. Paired with this, the music direction by Nick Williams was pleasing, and strategic vocal choices were made for the performers at their ability levels. Kudos must also go to vocal coach, Janelle Fletcher for these arrangements.
Acting and storytelling within each song remained the focus of the performance – which worked perfectly and showcased the strong collaboration between the creative team. The Divas (Lauren Baryla, Laura Davies, Anna Grabham, Hayley Chalmers, Georgia Escober, and Melanie Martin) were strong and their harmonies were clean; however, the standout was by far the ensemble. When all voices, parts, and harmonies were combined, the effect was beautiful and powerful. A treat to listen to.
Lucy Panitz’s choreography was simple yet effective, with some fun dancing moments around Trumpet’s grave, and the opening number of Act 2 with ‘Thank God I’m a County Boy’. Other numbers included equally fun and effective choreography.
The three leads, Brendan Thomas-Ryland (Tick), Dylan Ashton (Adam), and Nathan Chant (Bernadette) were fabulous. The comedic timing and relationship building between the three was high-end. Ashton’s sassy demeanor and flamboyant performance, especially in the red heel number, had the audience in stitches – it was so funny. Chant was the most compelling and extraordinary storyteller throughout the show, with audience eyes glued to the actor, such a strong stage presence, sense of realism, and moving scene work – beyond beautiful. A special mention to John Vongdara (Cynthia) who received the loudest of crowd cheers with his humorous rendition of ‘Pop Muzik’ featuring ping pong balls and all!
Accolades must go to Eddie Pocknee (Benji) and Thomas-Ryland for their emotive closing scene. There was barely a dry eye in the theatre, such a believable performance from both actors, very emotional, powerful, and well-received. Nicely, this scene encapsulated the main theme of the show – acceptance.
‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ really embraced the conversations of identity, feeling comfortable in your own skin, and acceptance of others. These are really important conversations in life, and being a decent human being remains necessary in today’s world. As a company, they respectfully took audiences on the character’s journeys and engaged them superbly well. Overall, the most significant theatrical element hands down was the elaborate and fantastic costuming, giant stiletto, and of course ‘Priscilla’ – the bus. This musical performance was just so much fun; all performers looked to be having the time of their lives on stage. The whole creative team has delivered a justified performance of the text.
‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ performed until Saturday, 11 September 2021 at Toowoomba’s Empire Theatres. For more information visit Toowoomba Choral Society’s website.
Photos from Kingfisher Creative