‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ was fierce.
After years of rescheduled and cancelled productions and a week of disastrous flooding, a rainbow appeared over the Redcliffe Entertainment Centre in the form of ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’. Hope, humanity and a whole lot of glam strutted onto the stage in an unapologetic production that championed the queers, qweens and everyone in between. Redcliffe Musical Theatre showed that true colours are beautiful as a rainbow in a powerful retelling of an Australian classic.
‘Priscilla’ opened for Australian cinema in 1994, not long after Mardi Gras made a bold appearance in Sydney. Ten years later in 2004, Sydney staged the first musical production of ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’. The production takes audiences on the journey of Tick (Conor Ensor) as he travels across the sunburnt land to meet his son. As a performer on the Sydney drag scene, Tick brings his close friends, Felicia (Alex Watson) and Bernadette (Shannon Foley), a transgender woman, on his cross country adventure to Uluru. Australia’s wide-open plains are as vast as its opinions and the trio meet many groups who do not welcome them. Ultimately, ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ is a production about not apologising for who you are. It teaches the simple but life-changing lesson of kindness and acceptance.
Redcliffe Musical Theatre was sure to point out that the production is a product of its time and the script portrays cultural groups in a potentially offensive and definitively culturally insensitive way. While disappointing to witness, it is important for theatre companies to call out these shortcomings in an otherwise positive script. Hopefully, with enough voices, the IP will allow elements of ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ to change and reflect its messages of understanding and sensitivity.
Redcliffe Musical Theatre’s production was a spectacle in every sense of the word: from a set of epic proportions to a lighting plot that could dazzle the darkest night and costumes that were a feat of engineering. Not one sequin was left unturned.
Both as a set and lighting feature, the arches of the Sydney Harbour Bridge were a pinnacle and highlight of the production. Recognisable to any Australian, the entire bridge lit up with LED strips in the opening number and framed the three Divas on the elevated runway.
Lighting design and operation by Chris Walker was sublime and supported the cast in all the right ways. In a production with such high energy, lighting design is integral to guide the audience’s eye and bring the necessary energy. Walker’s design swung smoothly between the intimate moments to large ensemble numbers in a way that wholly supported the narrative.
With the unexpected exit of the live band due to flooding, the cast did an exceptional job to perform the show with tracks. While the show missed the energy and freedom of pacing that a band brings, sound design by Murray Keidge CPC did a good job in blending the tracks with the live singing on stage. Despite some mic issues, microphone technicians Jonathan Moss and Peter Hurren should be applauded for handling a show of such scale. With big ensemble numbers every other minute, the audio was largely well balanced and the dialogue crisp.
The set was a fairly standard design for a jukebox musical, with an elevated runway and two sets of stairs stage right and left. However, despite its classic look, it was clear that this set brought all the fabulousness that ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ demands. Hired from CLOC Musical Theatre, the whole set was motorised, allowing for speedy and seamless changes. The set-piece that demanded attention was the quintessential ‘Priscilla’ bus: it moved, spun and even popped out a human-sized sequined shoe. There were some moments when the set changes didn’t quite line up with the music and so a comedic whirring could be heard. However, this will likely be tightened as the run progresses. Redcliffe Musical Theatre generally sits in the community theatre space, however, the scale of the set and costumes of CLOC Musical Theatre brought them well into the professional sphere.
A review of ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ could not be complete without talking about the costumes, and Redcliffe Musical Theatre certainly pulled out all the stops! Costume pieces included human paint-brushes, a dress made out of thongs, the most fabulous leopard unitard you ever did see, cupcakes and the list goes on. One can only imagine the mayhem occurring backstage with the scale of costuming in this production. However, wardrobe manager Sarah Hunt and a team of brave dressers made the madness look like a breeze on stage. The only negative of the fabulous costumes were the larger-than-life headpieces, which were phenomenal to look at but not practical on stage. Nervously hanging onto their headpieces that were half the size of them, the cast members were clearly concerned the massive costumes would fall off at any time. These moments did pull focus and hindered choreography.
Choreography by Jennifer Morison certainly lived up to the heights of the queens that performed. With strong ’90s influence, all numbers were vibrant, filled with energy and brought fresh formations to the numerous ensemble numbers.
Director Madeleine Johns and co-director Taylah McLennan had a lot to tackle, however, the pair handled the intricate production with sensitivity and beautiful use of dynamics. The ebb and flow of the show was great to see in a production that could so easily run away with energy and high-impact numbers. Johns and McLennan allowed the depths of the story to shine and found moments to bring audiences in. The relationship between the lead trio was particularly impactful and key blocking choices allowed the friendship to blossom throughout the production. A particularly powerful moment was ‘True Colours’ which established the shared experience and emotional impacts of the trio’s journey.
Music direction by Sherree Drummond completed the Musical Theatre trifecta. Harmonies were well balanced and tight, cues were hit and the cast melded together.
With talent as tall as their heels, Ensor, Foley and Watson owned the stage and left audiences on their feet. Ensor found the sensitivity and fragility of Tick as he rediscovered his identity as both a member of the queer community and a father. Foley was effervescent in their role of Bernadette with warmth, sass and a killer voice to boot. Watson was a self-proclaimed pocket rocket as Felicia, who had the audience in stitches with his impeccable comedic timing. You could write paragraphs on each of these Brisbane gems but SLAY sums it up pretty well.
One can’t forget the Divas: Maddison Coleman, Paige McKay and Laura Greenhalgh, who strutted their feathered stuff with poise, tight harmonies and stage presence to fill a theatre.
Other notable performances included Liam O’Byrne as Miss Understanding, who warmed the audience up with his quick wit; Adrian Carr as Bob, who showed great sensitivity as he allowed his character to discover himself; and Rebel Bliss as Cynthia, who captured the energy and hilarity of her character.
‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ relies on a schmick ensemble to bring the spectacle to life and Redcliffe Musical Theatre’s cast delivered in spades. With seasoned professionals and Brisbane theatre newcomers side by side, the comradery and talent was clear from the back rows of the theatre.
The standing ovation at the end of the show was more than deserved for a cast who not only put on a show that could be seen in theatres across Australia but overcame significant challenges in their journey to the stage. “After the year we’ve had…” has been the beginning of countless conversations the past few years. But while the world is suffering, the growth and resilience of the human spirit shines through. And ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ is a timely reminder to be yourself, be kind and pursue love – whatever that looks like for you.
‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ performs until Sunday, 20 March 2022 at Redcliffe Entertainment Centre before performing Wednesday, 6 April – Friday, 8 April 2022 at the Ipswich Civic Centre. For more information, visit the Redcliffe Musical Theatre website.