Hot on the high-heels of The Rocky Horror Show, another glittering camp caper arrives at the Leeds Grand Theatre in the form of Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical, adapted from the 1994 movie starring Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce.
The story follows the haphazard adventure of three drag acts – Tick, Bernardette and Felicia – as they cross Australia whilst Tick is apprehensive about meeting his young son for the first time. Encountering friends and foes on their way, the journey tells a story of identity and companionship, set to the songs of divas and disco.
The draw to this tour is Jason Donovan as Tick, perhaps the most conventional female impersonator in the trio. Whilst Donovan isn’t the strongest dancer in the production, his vocals have an instantaneous resonance, evoking his great success in the early Nineties. Powerfully sincere, Donovan’s performance is impressive and personable, realising Tick as a tangible and highly likable character. Graham Weaver as Felicia has an unwavering energy and cattiness, whose cabaret-style performances are as outlandish as his/her wardrobe. It is, however, Richard Grieve’s performance as Bernadette who is most likely to endure with audiences. With an elegant glamour and charm, Grieve provides a depth and dignity to a show which is, effectively, a parody of exhibitionism and superficiality. Grieve’s centred performance commands respect and attention, as well as being gracefully funny, and is above all a character who has a level of realism above her peers.
There are several standout supporting performers, all worthy of mention, but in brief appraisal; Giles Watling is warming as love interest Rob, whilst Frances Mayli McCann steals scenes as his screeching wife Cynthia. Alan Hunter’s Miss Understanding is explosive and hilarious, and Ellie Leah is riotously funny as grotesque bar wench Shirley.
Musically the show is punctuated by a catalogue of classic camp numbers and gay anthems, with divas such as Tina Turner, Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor well-represented among the ranks. Treated as full-blown show tunes with an orchestral arrangement by Stephen ‘Spud’ Murphy, numbers such as Don’t Leave Me This Way and Go West are impactful and impressive, whilst True Colours and Always On My Mind provide an agreeable balance of musical pathos.
The production is staged simply but effectively. Priscilla herself – a single deck coach – is realised imaginatively as a constantly moving platform complete with spinning wheels and animated windows, whilst other locations are insinuated with subtle dressings and drapes, evoking a cabaret texture. The simplicity is purely intentional, as the true spectacle of this production resides in its extreme costume; from dancing cupcakes to gowns fashioned into giant paintbrushes, each outfit is themed around the drama or musical number. Plunging straight into psychedelia, the costumes and the rapidity of their changes will impress audiences whilst the outright razzle-dazzle of their design will shock and stun. Special mention should also go to the flying chorus – flown dove-like divas who serenade and belt out numbers from high above the stage – making perhaps the campest entrances and exits in theatrical history.
Road trip comedy meets musical fantasy, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a musical with pomp and heart, defining its own unique groove of a genre. Its upbeat tone is infectious and delightful, whilst its musicality is toe-tappingly rousing. An assault on the eyes which brings a glow to the heart, Priscilla is a musical that’s proudly out there, outrageous, outlandish and ultimately outstanding entertainment.