Review: Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Nardus Engelbrecht

What more could a gay man ask for than to be greeted with little pink feathered envelopes filled with theatre tickets, Kryolan makeup and a fabulous USB flash drive? Well, that’s exactly how the media premiere of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Artscape Theatre opened. When the foyer is littered with disco balls, feather boas and men in dresses, you can’t help but feel your inner drag queen rising to the surface, waiting for that curtain to rise. Even as I write this, the energy still fizzles through my body (listening to ‘Dancing Queen’ in the background of course).

The audience went wild. The moment that giant disco ball lit up the auditorium there were screams all around. People donned fancy headgear and feather boas, throwing their arms up in the air and waving them around like they just didn’t care. It was joyous, festive – a vibrant celebration of all things drag. The singing trio was a massive hit. Never were the cheers as loud as when those three women came hoisted down on cables in spectacular sequined gowns. Amongst all the airbrushed boys, colourful costumes and catchy musical numbers there was also great chemistry between the three leads. Insults were thrown liberally and with lightning sharp wit – it’s a laugh-a-minute affair. As beautiful as each of the lead’s voices were, it’s David Dennis, as Bernadette, who steals the show; his less-is-more approach a perfect fit amidst the boldness of everything around him. He manages to find the perfect combination of cattiness, sarcasm, sophistication and vulnerability.

One cannot discuss this production without applauding the team behind the titular bus’s design. It has moving wheels, an LED coating which allows for dazzling light displays, and has one side cutaway so we get a perfect view of our three characters and their colourful home on the road. It’s a transformative prop and one can’t help but imagine how striking it would look rolling down a desert road. But the bus’s wow factor is equally matched by the stroke-of-genius costumes. From drag Halloween to giant cupcakes and paintbrushes, and not forgetting the candy-coated Katy Perry-esque wigs, Chappel and Gardiner’s designs never cease to amaze, eliciting ooh’s and aah’s from the crowd. If there were one closet I’d definitely climb (back) into, it would be this one. If only to the witness the madness of these designs, it would have been a night well spent. But Priscilla has so much more to offer.

At its heart, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a road trip bildungsroman for gay and queer men. Although its cultural message may not be as potent as it was back in the early nineties, it’s still an important piece of art that deserves applause and celebration. I’ll admit that I expected a deeper sense of catharsis from the characters. I wanted to feel their struggle, how they deal with their past trauma, and how through this wild journey across the desert they finally find a sense of salvation and a place that feels like home. Sure there are wonderful moments, like Bernadette and Bob’s date by the fire or Tick and Benji’s bedtime Elvis show. And these moments are special and pure. But this production doesn’t hit deep, in the way that the story has the potential to do. Alas, it is a musical and the team behind Priscilla spared no expense or passion to put on a show whose glam factor is easily an eleven.

And all the crazy choreography, fantastic musical numbers and snarky character drama erupts in an electrifying second act. This culminates in perhaps the most awesome moment of the production: a montage of Mitzi, Bernadette and Felicia’s final performance in true draglicious style, complete with stand-ins and split second costume changes. In short, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is an exhilarating dose of fabulosity and a dazzling desert spectacle but like its titular bus, it kicks up some dust along the way. But don’t let that keep you away. Grab your feather boa, your most fabulous friend, and your wildest frock and go frolicking in the city centre for an evening of debaucherous fun.

Mustapha Hendricks

Priscilla Queen of the Desert takes place at the Artcsape Theatre until 23 April 2017. 


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