By BRUCE DENNILL
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical / Directed by Simon Phillips / The Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert remains a very different kettle of queens to most stage musicals. As one of the many based on a successful film, it has a visual standard to live up to – in this case a particularly challenging one, given that the movie won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design – but there is plainly more to it than that. As attested to by the full Teatro foyer on opening night, which was so camp it could have been sponsored by Outdoor Warehouse, there is a vibrant subculture tied directly into the story, but also a wider community of fence-sitters (gay or otherwise) who, when Priscilla comes to town, are given access to a context in which they can fully express themselves as either out and proud or simply profoundly in touch with their fabulous side. As such, where societal issues around homosexuality, cross-dressing and trans-gender individuals are concerned, there’s a very different dynamic in the theatre when this musical is being staged and in the office building or other work scenario audience members will return to after they’ve seen it. That should, and hopefully will, provoke reflection once the laughter and applause has died down.
To the stage, then, where the production and costume design (originally by Brian Thomson and Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner respectively) grab the spotlight, never to relinquish it.
The bus – despite a minor programming glitch with the LED lights that cover its flanks towards the end of Act 1 – is a character in itself, both a sanctuary for Tick/Mitzi (Daniel Buys), Adam/Felicia (Phillip Schnetler) and Bernadette (David Dennis) and a signpost that draws the attention of every homophobic redneck between Sydney and Alice Springs as the protagonists undertake their great trek.
The costumes are the DayGlo highlighters that focus attention on the height at which the bar is set here. In many instances, there is no real need for the level of flamboyance on display – the finale alone must have close to the entire costume budget of most other musicals – but the fact that the commitment to festive exuberance is so high that a tiny, incidental observation on Tick’s part leads to a full setpiece to the tune of Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park, is what gives the show its overall impact. It’s as though the production itself has a personality as loud and brazen as some of its protagonists.
In the lead roles, Schnetler embodies the brittle boldness of a man-woman at once hugely confident and incredibly insecure, and Buys gives easily his best performance since Jersey Boys as Tick, whose status as a divorcee and father as well as a drag queen sets him apart. David Dennis as Bernadette, however, is the show-stopper (which is saying something in a production featuring six-foot, bearded red-heads in bondage gear). Dennis simply disappears into the role. It’s fair to say that he’s helped by the excellent make-up artists involved and a convincing wig, but it’s also true that, though you know he’s on stage – Dennis is a recognisable multi award-winning stage and screen actor, and his picture is clearly displayed in the programme – it will take you a few scenes to persuade yourself that he is Bernadette, the older friend and mentor Tick asks to come along on the bus ride. On this evidence, Dennis should be a lock for a Best Actor (or Actress…?) gong in the next round of theatre awards.
In smaller roles, Taryn-Lee Buys, Chantal Herman and Candice Van Litsenborgh (as Shirley, the proprietress of a particularly seedy backwater bar, she induces a sustained belly laugh) deserve special mention.
If musicals involving a number of hits are usually referred to as “jukebox musicals”, this one, in which lip-synching is a tool of the characters’ trade, might more accurately be termed a “karaoke musical”, with the soundtrack comprising camp disco and pop classics. Giving these clichés class is a trio of singers – Lindiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini, Candida Mosoma and Thembeka Mnguni – called the Divas, who spend the bulk of their time bravely descending from the flies, ten or more metres above the stage. Their superb vocals are sometimes the lead instruments and sometimes supplementary to the singing of the cast and ensemble, and the consistency their perfomances lend to the soundtrack overall is important.
In this storyline, the phrase “the journey is the destination” applies, with most of the character development, humour and pathos packed into the middle sections. But the slightly underwhelming wrapping up of the narrative is a blip that’s completely overwhelmed by the assault on the senses that is the all-out finale, which ensures that audiences leave the theatre on a high.