To the heart of fabulosity

Daniel Buys as Mitzi, Phillip Schnetler as Felicia and David Dennis as Bernadette in Priscilla – Queen of the Desert: The Musical, at Johannesburg’s Teatro until June 18.  Picture by Nardus Engelbrecht.

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STAGE: Priscilla – Queen of the Desert: The Musical –
Teatro Theatre, Montecasino, Johannesburg

REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
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DANCERS dress as paintbrushes, then as giant cupcakes with illuminated candles under elongated umbrellas. We also see them as emus, lizards, farmhands, camp gladiators, cowboys and feathered showgirls. Heck, they even appear in outfits surrounded by giant bees.

Then there’s a dynamite trio of divas, in sequinned silver dresses and, later, angel wings, who dangle in harnesses 10m above a silver-to-pink bus called Priscilla, whose wheels turn and which is fitted with LED lighting to constantly change colours and patterns.

Ping-pong-ball-shooting to the strains of the 1979  hit, Pop Muzik… roadkill including a TellyTubbie… a desert where a moon is a dull discoball.  Not to forget flamboyant drag queens and some of the most outrageous and colourful costumes around.

Welcome to the giddy, kaleidoscopic and hugely intoxicating world of fun and fabulosity that is Priscilla – Queen of the Desert, the stage musical of the 1994 cult film.

It’s a show, using pop and disco hits as a score, that is camper than a caravan park, the production featuring 471 costumes, 45 wigs, 120 pairs of shoes, 200 hats and head-dresses, piles of glitter and a variety of specially created make-up masks.

The winner of an Oscar for costumes by Tim Chappell and Lizzy Gardiner, the film about two drag queens and an older transgender woman who drive a bus from Sydney to the desert town of Alice Springs, for a drag lip-sync gig, starred Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving.

Daniel Buys, David Dennis and Phillip Schnetler in Priscilla – Queen of the Desert: The Musical. Picture by Nardus Engelbrecht.

Such was its success that the movie’s screenwriter and director, Stephen Elliott, went on to create the book for the stage musical with Allan Scott, first staging it in 2006, in Sydney, with the same costume designers as the film.

The musical has since been seen everywhere from the UK to the US, Stockholm to Seoul, Tel Aviv to Tokyo, Paris to Milan, and even on a Norwegian cruise liner.

Directed by Simon Phillips, with Anton Luitingh as the South African resident director, Bryan Schimmel as the local music director and Duane Alexander as resident choreographer, the first South African production of the show is a constant delight.

Little wonder the capacity preview audience in Johannesburg, dotted with drag queens, whooped it up and readily rose for a standing ovation after the final bows.

The musical is very well cast, seasoned performer David Dennis being a standout as the sophisticated, sarcastic Bernadette, a transgender woman who decides to take the gig in Alice Springs to cheer herself up after the death of her younger husband, and as a favour to her pal.

That pal is drag performer Mitzi (Daniel Buys, seen recently in Gauteng in Saturday Night Fever and West Side Story), who harbours a secret that is the real reason for his wanting to cross the desert.

Completing the lip-sync trio is the show-off, energetic, immature and often bitchy Felicia (an athletic, very impressive Phillip Schnetler, who was in recent Gauteng productions of Annie and Saturday Night Fever). Felicia’s dream, and her reason for taking this gig, is to perform a Kylie Minogue medley in full drag, atop Ayers Rock – “a cock in a frock on a rock”, as she is referred to.

The three personalities, during their long drive, soon face a comedy of errors and, in between rehearsing, trading bitchy banter and stopping off at pubs in dusty towns en route, they slowly bond after bumping into a number of offbeat characters.

Not least among them is a dishevelled, hick beast of a woman with mullet hairstyle and bouncing breasts (a delightful Candice van Litsenborgh), and a loud Asian entertainer (Chantal Herman) who is the mail-order bride of a sweet mechanic (James Borthwick) who takes a shine to Bernadette.

It is not all fun and laughs, as the trio face prejudice, a hate slogan on their bus and even some ugly violence as they journey into the heart of the Aussie Outback.

Candida Masoma, Thembeka Mnguni and Londiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini as the divas. Picture by Nardus Engelbrecht.

Mostly, however, the often raunchy and always spectacular Priscilla – Queen of the Desert is a celebration of fun, bonding and the need for acceptance.

Highlights include the opening sequence of the three divas (Candida Mosoma and Durban performers Thembeka Mnguni and Londiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini) dangling above a silver-glittered Sydney Harbour bridge, performing It’s Raining Men.

Of note, too, is a feathery, fantasy flashback to Bernadette’s youth, when she was a member of the Les Girls troupe: an over-the-top lip-sync to A Fine Romance; and Felicia’s entrance number – a flashy, sexy delivery of Venus.

Felicia’s shining moment, however, is her showstopping routine, flanked by floating divas, when she lip-syncs to a recording of an operatic aria from La Traviata, performed with hilarity in a giant silver stiletto atop the moving bus – a classic scene from the movie.

Also worth special mention is the closing show in Alice Springs, a high-speed showcase of several numbers in which the trio make lightning-quick costume changes and also have stand-ins. Clever and very amusing – and The Morning After, the Oscar-winning theme song from the film The Poseidon Adventure, will never sound the same again.

Moments of pathos are milked with songs associated with Cyndi Lauper and Elvis Presley, and other numbers carefully selected for both their hit value and lyrical contribution to forwarding the storyline include Go West, I Say a Little Prayer, Don’t Leave Me This Way, I Love the Nightlife, Colour My World and We Belong.

Priscilla – Queen of the Desert, featuring a 28-member cast that includes Durban-born Taryn-Lee Hudson (wife of actor Daniel Buys) as a casino executive who has links with Mitzi, features a fine 10-member band under the baton of Bryan Schimmel.

The I Will Survive sequence from the hit musical. Picture by Nardus Engelbrecht.

The ensemble features a host of multi-talented local performers including Tshepo Ncokoane (Shrek, Janice Honeyman’s Sleeping Beauty); Zane Gillion (Sister Act, Saturday Night Fever, Dirty Dancing); Michael Fullard (Hot Mikado, Sleeping Beauty, Sneeuwitjie); Michael Wallace (Rocky Horror Picture Show, Cabaret, West Side Story); and Craig Hawks (Black Sails television series, My Fair Lady).

Also here are Ryan Flynn (Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Sound of Music, Jersey Boys), Samuel Hyde (Singin’ in the Rain SA, Asia and Australia/New Zealand Tour); Henk Opperman (Private Presley, Dirty Dancing the Musical SA and Asia). Fresh new talent includes Dirk Joubert, Jonathan Raath, Nadine Grobbelaar, Donae Brazer, Logan Timbre and Darius Engelbrecht.

Offering many smiles and laughs, as well as providing pathos and food for thought, Priscilla – Queen of the Desert is a heartwarming, uplifting musical – and certainly worth my drive up from Durban.

The musical is at the Teatro theatre in Gauteng until June 18, after which it tours to Hong Kong. Performances are Tuesdays to Sundays, and ticket prices vary from R250 to R500. Booking is at Computicket outlets.

Sharing the excitement and enthusiasm for the show across the Montecasino precinct, patrons are invited to “Get Frocked and Fabulous” at the Priscilla Pop-Up bus located outside the Montecasino Box Office.

To qualify, simply produce your theatre ticket and have your glamorous make-up done free of charge before the show. Seats are limited and guests are accommodated on a first come, first served basis.

The Pop-Up Bus operates for only two hours and is open on Thursdays and Fridays from 5.30pm; Saturdays from 12.30pm and 5.30pm, and Sundays from 11.30am and 3.30pm.

The I Love the Nightlife sequence from Priscilla – Queen of the Desert: The Musical. Picture by Nardus Engelbrecht.
The funeral sequence from Priscilla – Queen of the Desert: The Musical. Picture by Nardus Engelbrecht.

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