An unseasonably cold, drab Monday evening in Wolverhampton, metamorphosed into the warmth and colour of the Australian desert drag and transgendered scene, as Priscilla rolled into town as part of a very successful nationwide tour. Spare seats were at a premium.
The story, a road trip from Sidney to Alice Springs, taking three performers to the desert outpost for very different reasons, does not in itself seem remarkable, but the alchemy of this stage production is. Costuming, courtesy of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner is lavish, colourful and show defining. Its origins lie in the 1994 film, by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but the musical did not debut until 2006. Legend has it that show Producer Scott can sing the scores of some three dozen musicals, that knowledge , grasp and touch for musical theatre is much in evidence here.
Musically, the songs are culled from the club scene of the eighties. Mathew Loughran, musical director, and Michael Waters, sound design, have done a fine job both with song choice and with the arrangements using a live band, orchestrations by Stephen “Spud” Murphy and Charlie Hull.
Star of the show is boy band heartthrob Duncan James, from Blue, who plays Tick, a drag queen who wants to travel to Alice Springs to see his wife and young son aboard a rickety old coach christened Priscilla. James carries the role with ease, and on “I Say a Little Prayer For You” and “Always on my Mind” sings with power and conviction, a trait demonstrated by the entire, substantial cast.
On one level this is a slick, very well produced, jukebox musical. Yet its appeal reaches beyond. The recent news has been dominated by concerns about anti-semitism and migrant flight. Here, in microcosm, we have a minority community following its dreams, giving the show a heart and warmth which transcends its format.
Perhaps the most compelling performance comes from Simon Green as Bernadette, whose ageing female persona is alluring, tragic but life affirming. Understated in a way his two lead performing companions, Tick and Felicia are not, he anchors the show from drifting off into plain Burlesque.
Adam Bailey has the fun, flouncy part as the irritating Felicia, with the camp button always turned to the maximum. It is only when he is fully dressed, and sings “Hot Stuff” that his natural talent emerges, giving the song, which is often routine, an edge and poignancy rarely apparent in the renditions of other singers.
Special mention should be made of Naomi Slights, who plays Ticks’ wife. In the face of overwhelming competition for the skirts, heels and stockings in the wardrobe she still stands out with sharp dance moves and a figure the boys would die for.
Production values are glitzy and opulent, with the focus on costuming and the bus. The choreography, originally by the late Ross Coleman, and now in the hands of Andrew Hallsworth is snappy and crisp, with an eye for the panorama of the stage, including the airborne divas!
It is pretty much impossible to watch this show without clapping your hands, tapping your feet, and singing along to the club classic score. The energy injected into this opening night from a large talented cast was impressive, as were the smiles and standing ovation at the end from the audience. The show runs till Saturday 7th May and continues on nationwide tour.
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.