As Priscilla Queen of the Desert opens on the Curve stage, there are disco vibes aplenty with a clapping, expectant audience as we are welcomed to the “Cockatoo club”. The energy is high on the stage as the sequinned ensemble strut their stuff and as soon as the lib begins, the audience is treated to joke upon joke as Miss Understanding (Kevin Yates) takes to the stage, breaking the fourth wall to warm the audience up with a series of hilarious yet smutty jokes that the audience just lap up. There is nothing not to love in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the story of two drag queens and a transgender woman who travel across the Australian outback to perform their Drag show in Alice Springs.
In 1994, Priscilla Queen of the Desert graced the silver screen – it took another 12 years for it to be reimagined and transformed into a stage production starring the legendary Jason Donovan as Tick/Mitzi. What an honour for the audiences of this 2021 tour, that Jason Donovan has returned as the show’s producer…and how proud he must be of his own accomplishments but also that of the cast and creative team. The entire ensemble are absolutely breath-taking – this reviewer is in awe of the energy and the oomph that goes into the performance. From mourners to maniacal cupcakes, the ensemble really do have their work cut out for them, but they deliver in EVERY single song. The eye is often drawn to the choreography and the ensemble, rather than the principals which demonstrates their commitment to every single step and every move and every emotion.
That is of course not to say that the principals are anything less than marvellous. Nick Hayes is fabulous as the immature and rather bitchy Adam/Felicia, with his quick wit being the source of much comedy. However, one of the more gritty and disturbing scenes in the production is made all the more tense because of Hayes’ acting and dance ability which really showed his range. The choreography here is powerful (emphasised greatly by the vivid lighting) as Felicia is beaten for simply wanting to be herself. While Priscilla Queen of the Desert is most known for being a camp comedy about the LGBTQ+ community with a wicked soundtrack, it does not shy away from the more serious issues surrounding bigotry and discrimination.
Bernadette (Miles Western), the oldest member of the cross-country trio, has seen her fair share of prejudice but she refuses to be anything less than she wishes to be, and this is inspiring. She is fragile and has been broken, but seeing her embrace a maternal role and be open to love is heart-warming. There is a delicateness about the role that is played sensitively by Western.
Edwin Ray playing Tick/Mitzi is the standout for this reviewer. As arguably the central character, Tick brings together the trio and organises the trip to Alice Springs to enable him to meet his 6 year old son for the first time. Ray has a beautiful voice which brings tears to the eyes of this reviewer during his more moving solos such as “Always on my Mind”. Tick is on a journey of acceptance and his portrayal of someone who has partially lost their way and their identity to finding family and the strength to be proud of who he is instead of hiding away is incredibly moving.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is an unexpectedly emotional show – it’s not just a comedic jukebox musical – but there are many more things to be celebrated and let’s start with the costumes designed by Charlie Cusick-Smith. WOW! The costumes alone are worth the price of a ticket! The sequins, the feathers, the colours, the imagination that goes into the costume design is incredible. From glitzy showgirls to dowdy cowgirls, this show has it all…and then some! Then there are the wigs by Diana Estrada which are elaborate and ostentatious. Hats off to all the onstage cast and the backstage crew for those super-fast costume (and make up) changes.
The only characters who stay in consistent dress are the 3 divas, Claudia Kariuki, Aiesha Pease and Rosie Glossop, who stun in their white goddess dresses. The trio have amazing voices which complement each other greatly – they all carry an air of Motown soul reminiscent of the Supremes. The solos in this production are very moving and demonstrate the vocal range of the soloists, the small group numbers (including the diva songs) are uplifting, but the whole ensemble numbers are energising – the harmonies are tremendous. The whole cast just gel and the fun on stage in replicated in the auditorium.
There were unfortunately some technical issues with the lighting which resulting in the curtain falling for approximately 15 minutes half way through the first half, but kudos to the cast who, despite losing their flow mid performance, picked it straight back up with, if it’s even possible, more energy than before. It did not take long for the audience to immerse themselves back into the journey on the now iconic Priscilla drag-mobile.
Above all, this is a show about love. Not necessarily romantic love (although a beautiful romance blooms over the course of the performance), but love of oneself, one’s friends and one’s family. It pays homage to anthems such as “Go West”, “I will Survive”, “It’s Raining Men” and “Hot Stuff” with exuberance and dynamism. The message of inclusivity and of personal choice are central to this absolute fun and frolicking spectacle
If you’ll excuse the pun, Priscilla Queen of the Desert…what a ride!
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is running at Curve Theatre in Leicester until Saturday 18 October.