There seem to be as many variations of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert The Musicalas there have been productions over the years. I don’t just mean the decisions that need to be made about blocking, choreography, musical arrangements, and so on and so forth – the order of the musical numbers in this new regional production differs from the West End production that opened at the Palace Theatre in 2009, and therefore the order in which the narrative unfolds is different. As ever, it would be too much of a giveaway to start listing all the differences in terms of plot – and it would be an exercise in superfluity in any event: the end result is the same, a feel-good finish sending the audience out on a positive and uplifting note.
Immediately noticeable is the use of actors as musicians; only the drummer, Greg Pringle, remains off-stage throughout. A catwalk-style extension to the stage juts out several rows into the audience (as it did, for instance, in the West End production of Sunny Afternoon), and like many shows, it took a while to get going but once it hit its stride, there was no stopping the show from incrementally getting more entertaining and absorbing as it went along.
This upward trajectory extends across various aspects of the production, from singing vocals to costumes. By the time Tick (Tom Giles), who also goes by Mitzi (don’t ask), belts out ‘MacArthur Park’, the show had been almost crying out for a big, all-out showstopper, and the audience’s patience is sufficiently rewarded. Tick and his fellow drag queens, Bernadette (Mark Inscoe, the production’s stand-out performer) and Felicia (Daniel Bailey) reserve their most spectacular outfits for their final outing – there’s no anti-climax here. The show builds to a crescendo. Although conventional, the trio’s journey, both physically on a bus bought by Felicia from Sydney to Alice Springs (a journey of over 1,700 miles), and proverbially as they encounter various forms of abuse, is not.
The big ensemble numbers are well supplemented by a ‘community chorus’, comprised of (in the order listed in the programme) Alice Bacon, Annemarie Billings, Colin Daly, Sophie Gilkes-Tarsey, Martin Hart, Ellie Harvey, Ellie Hutley, Vernon Keeble-Watson, Kerry Lawson, Mandy Lyes, Chrissie Mallett, Terence Mustoo, Hayley Sanderson, David Savage, Thomas Stansfield, Harleigh Stenning, Marie Watson, Adam Wheeler, Aiesha Wilson – the supernumeraries make, for instance, a bar look busy and bustling indeed.
Benji (Frankie Day on press night: the role is shared with Alfie Gostling and Joshua Neal) drew audible ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the audience: the prepubescent son of Tick and his wife Marion (Clara Darcy) shows a level-headed temperament beyond his tender years. Peppered throughout the show are some good punchlines, though some are closer to the mark than ever in these days of ever-increasing acceptance and welcome of all people of all orientations, eccentricities and personal tastes. One of the more quotable pithy lines comes from Miss Understanding (Lemuel Knights). After greeting latecomers, the emcee adds, “Can I get you anything? Like, a watch?”.
In places, the sound was not quite balanced, though the production does well to get (spoiler alert) a full-size single-decker bus on stage, with enough space for it to move around. Miracle Chance’s Cynthia comes close to stealing the show – those familiar with the motion picture on which this musical is based may or may not be pleased to learn the ping-pong cabaret routine is toned down just a tad. The storyline may not be much to write home about, but undoubtedly there is much to be enjoyed in the songs sung to a high standard, and the good-natured atmosphere this fun and flirtatious production provides.