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Priscilla – the name of the iconic Australian film that not only felt good, it had something to say; now, it’s the first Australian film to be turned into a big budget musical, with the help of some of the original writers and artists. The World Premiere season began in Sydney last weekend; Andrew L. Urban had a great seat in the stalls and says: THESE are costumes !

Finally! As the closing song says, as it brings down the curtain on the World Premiere of Priscilla The Musical at Sydney’s Star City, the pink bus has come back to the place it started from, this time with a handful more songs, lots more dancing and a wardrobe that takes its inspiration from the iconic (Oscar winning) but low budget outfits created for Steph Elliott’s film by Lizzie Gardiner and Tim Chappel. Not only has the budget bloomed, Gardiner and Chappell have taken the concepts to their illogical, irreverent and magnificently creative conclusions. Beautifully designed and crafted angels, koalas, brightly coloured spiky desert creatures, dancing cupcakes complete with candles and even the Opera House sails have served as inspirations for costumes that happily break with convention yet stay true to their function within the spirit of the production. In a word: sensational.

Finally indeed, since if any Australian film deserved a musical makeover, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert was it. It already was, for all intents and purposes, a musical: it had songs, it had a fab wardrobe and it had a classic story with a twist and a heart. The drag troupe is off to the casino in Alice Springs to do a show as a favour to Mitzi’s ex wife, with whom he has a son but no-one knows about it. This will be their first meeting. On they way, the stumble into outback characters and adventures, and the recently bereaved Bernadette, a ‘completed’ transvestite, meets a mechanic who might just fix her heart.

"combines clashing icons of Australia"

The film, one of the biggest Australian hits at home and internationally, combines clashing icons of Australia to celebrate them all, from the daring and risqué romp of Sydney’s drag queen milieu of Les Girls, with its coterie of fem-imps dressed in exotic outfits in dazzling colour, to the Drizabone trenchcoated station hands and hard drinking sheilas and blokes of Broken Hill & Woop Woop in the red desert of the outback.

Director Simon Phillips and choreographer Ross Coleman have incorporated the spectacular costumes into the production, and Coleman’s work matches the wardrobe for invention in the pursuit of function. Producing a brand new musical on this scale – with limited preparation and technical run throughs – is like trying to build the Sydney Opera House in two years. But they’ve done it. And even if you discount the extended standing ovation, the laughter and applause scattered freely throughout the show are proof that audiences are responding to the basic elements of the material.

Performances in a show like this will mature and get polished over time, but even at the start of the run, the company has welded seamlessly and the principals are terrific. Tony Sheldon gives Bernadette her characteristic worldly wise yet vulnerable persona; Jeremy Stanford as Mitzi finds the character balance he needs as a bisexual father yet happy drag queen, and Adam is a firecracker with some spitfire lines of dialogue.

Trevor Ashley (as Miss Understanding) and Genevieve Lemon (as Shirley) are both outstanding in small but important roles. Michael Caton brings a wonderful reality to the role of Bob the mechanic, and his Asian mail order bride Cynthia is played with just the right showbiz pizzazz by Lena Cruz. (She has the showstopping scene with the ping pong balls ….)

Comparisons with the film are inevitable, but it’s best to see the musical on its own terms – which are generous. There are two dozen songs, including iconic numbers from the film like the aria from La Traviata which Felicia mimes atop the giant high heeled shoe atop bus with silk ribbon flowing behind.

New material includes a hilariously set up MacArthur Park, and a couple of ballads, including Don’t Leave Me This Way which is sung at the funeral of Bernadette’s recent lover, Trumpet. The audience wasn’t expecting to be taken from the broad comedy to the intimate drama quite so suddenly and wasn’t sure whether to laugh. A later scene has the same impact, when Adam, after being left on his own, begins to sing All By Myself.

"world standard"

It’s mightily difficult to manage the tone of this work, since without the dramatic ballast it would be a colourful and glamorous but meaningless show fluff. But it’s grounded in the drama of the father and son element, as well as in Bernadette’s persona. There’s no question this production is world standard and Priscilla deserves to make many stops on its long journey into showbiz history.

Footnote: In a programme note, the entire company dedicates the show to public relations consultant Judith Johnson, who died a week before opening night. “Judith lived and breathed showbusiness playing a vital role behind the scenes in the production. Her passing leaves a huge emotional and professional void; she will be sadly missed by all.”

The editors of Urban Cinefile have known and worked with Judith for many years and sincerely echo those sentiments.

Published October 12, 2006

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Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical
(Based on Latent Image/Specific Films motion picture, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert)

World Premiere: Lyric Theatre, Star City, Sydney
Saturday, October 7, 2006

Produced by Back Row Productions, Specific Films, Alan Scott and John Frost, in association with MGM On Stage


Tony Sheldon

Lizzie Gardiner

Written by Steph Elliott and Allan Scott
Directed by Simon Phillips
Choreographed by Ross Coleman
Musical direction Spud Murphy
Sets designs by Brian Thomson
Costume designs by Lizzie Gardiner and Tim Chappel
Lighting design by Nick Schlieper

Tony Sheldon, Jeremy Stanford, Daniel Scott, Marney McQueen, Genevieve Lemon, Lena Cruz, Trevor ASshley, Danielle Barnes, Amelia Cormack, Sophie Carter, Michael Griffiths, Nick Hardcastle, Mark Hodge, Ben Lewis, Marney McQueen, Christina O’Neill, Kurt Phelan, Damien Ross, David Spencer, Dean Vince and Jeremy Youett.

Judith Johnson

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