Geelong Arts Centre
Until 23 September
I spent my Saturday night in Geelong attending the final performance of CentreStage’s production of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. In the Melbourne amateur theatre circuit, many of the favourite musicals to adapt for any company are of American or British origin, ranging from those written by some of the greatest 20th century composers, originally starring Hollywood royalty or are rewrites of classic plays and films fit for the modern audience. However, every so often one of the major musical favourites to produce is Australian and no Australian musical often comes close to the beloved following that Priscilla has as it is an LGBTQ positive road trip story revolving around two drag queens and a transgender woman that has captured hearts the world over in cinema and theatre for almost thirty years. Legacies like this can be hard to match when a company tries their hand at recreating such an iconic production but if any amateur company was able to do it with ease, it was CentreStage and their production’s glamorous queens, sparkling party atmospheres, award worthy costume designs imported straight from Broadway and true queer spirit were only just the beginning.
Rightfully seated in the director’s chair was Dean Robinson, whose creative vision saw no bounds as he reached for the stars to accurately paint a picture of the good, the bad, the pretty and the ugly of what it means to identify as LGBTQ in Australia while capturing the essence of city and small town life between Sydney and Alice Springs in the process. Throughout production, Robinson went out of his way to make his cast feel safe and welcome as he and assistant director Kethly Hemsworth got each actor to bring out the best of not only their acting skills but of their fabulous personalities, letting their rainbow symphony of true colours fly proudly in a directorial feat that was enchanting and emancipating. Gabriel Taburet and Josh Vucicevic both had their work cut out for them behind the baton as musical director and vocal director respectively when it came to adapting many classic contemporary pop hits of the past. However, they both rose to occasion in a wildly successful fashion that was lively and legendary with Taburet and his trusted band getting the party started with music that got the audience up on their feet dancing the night away with no note out of place and Vucicevic kept the party going by seeing to it that each vocalist could wow the crowd and have them singing their hearts out along with them while unleashing the inner diva and showcasing the phenomenal range, soul and star power they all possessed. From a dance perspective, confidence was the key element in Madeleine Pratt’s sharp and showstopping choreography due to the amount of personality and fierce body expression she was able to get her dancers to engage in and incorporate into each routine. Most of the cast were dancing in high heeled shoes the whole night regardless of experience and making that happen without a single misstep or onstage accident alone is talent beyond measure and this was a testament to Pratt’s brilliance as a mystical mistress of dance, how her choreographic style was a match made in heaven for the production and how much hot fun she can bring to the table and take on the floor in every dance move she creates.
From where I was seated, it was crystal clear that the cast of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert were all living their best life on stage whether they were playing queens, kings, vocalists, lip synchers, allies, bigots, friends, enemies, city folk, country folk or even vaginally inserted ping pong balls. First, I’d like to highlight the work of the production’s ensemble and featured cast who constantly slayed in the finest costumes no matter the difficulty in unparalleled dedication to the craft, discovered a personal connection with each of their various roles and overall turned a stage musical into a show of shows. My hat particularly goes off to Nicola Gibson who transformed into Broken Hill resident bogan Shirley as if the character was written specifically for her and had the audience in stitches with just one scene; Tristan Harris who proudly represented his culture in the role of Jimmy and opened up doors for Aboriginal performers everywhere in the most beautiful of art forms; Jack Barthel who terrified us all with his maliciously menacing take on Frank that was all too real for survivors of sexual assault due to one’s sexuality and was brave enough to call these offenders out in the process of his portrayal; Leigh Keast and Flynn Wilkie-Clark for their standout performances of Thank God I’m A Country Boy and A Fine Romance respectively in the definitive way to open up any musical’s second act and had the audience wanting more; and especially to Shani Clarke for their revolutionary characterisation of MR. Understanding in a historically gender bent performance fit for a king that created so many opportunities for drag kings and non-binary performers far beyond our country’s amateur performance world and rewrote the narrative on how to tackle the MC character of Understanding for all time.
Moving on to the leads, I wish to start with the two anatomically female stars, Cath Hughey and Mia Sugiyanto and their wild, wacky and wondrous portrayals of Marion and Cynthia respectively. In her performance of an Alice Springs single mother and casino owner who’s undying love and support for her ex-husband defined what it means to be an LGBTQ ally as she introduces her equally supportive son to his drag queen father, Hughey was capable of contagiously spreading her character’s message to great distances beyond those in the audience and it warmed our hearts to watch her story play out for the masses. Meanwhile, for her presentation of an alcoholic former striptease dancer wanting to break out of country life, Sugiyanto embraced her character’s fan favourite rendition of Pop Muzik with arms (and evidently legs) right open and promoted an interesting yet sexy message of body confidence and sexual liberation that meant so much more than ping pong balls while unapologetically being in awe of the city queens and the world they live in and hoping that for herself. Two of the biggest standouts of the night were the characters of mechanic and Bernadette’s later love interest Bob and Tick/Mitzi’s loving son Benji, the most supportive males our three heroes meet on their trip from Sydney to Alice who got the entire audience feeling warm and fuzzy inside enough that we wanted to give them big old hugs and all our thanks by the time the night was over. As Bob, Ramon Abohaidar was given the chance to take on a dream role of his for the very first time and proved to us that it was a role he was born to play as his terrifically tender-hearted and truthful performance touched us all with nothing stopping him from sharing his love for the queer community and the human race in his portrayal with a message of tolerance and celebration. Three young boys were selected to portray Benji throughout Priscilla’s run, Baxter Hyatt, Daniel Lim and Eddie Finnigan and I was lucky enough to witness Hyatt in the role when I attended the spectacle. However, after meeting all three boys in the foyer afterwards, I wish to say that each of them deserve all the praise in the world for bringing Benji to life as if he came straight out of their imagination in characterisations that were intelligently inspirational and informative of how the youth of today are much more understanding of those different from us and how they can shape a foreseeable future where we all can live as one.
When it comes to Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, it wouldn’t be right to separate the production monarchs into categories of kings and queens as they are all undoubtedly queens regardless of gender or sexuality. This time around, there were six reigning queens of the presentation, more than a deck of cards has and more than any I’ve named before in previous reviews and they were what I can now call the two trios of the century, the three divas and the three iconic drag performers Tick/Mitzi, Bernadette and Adam/Felicia. Together, both trios were unstoppable in crystal performances that were creative, colourful, compelling and courageous and each member of these respective trios individually brought something unique to their parts. In the diva trio, Tessa Reed brought soul and rhythm in a vocal performance that could give many R&B hitmakers of the 80s and 90s a run for their money; appropriately named Dana Singer brought rock and flare that cemented her status in our community as a legitimate rockstar following her breakthrough turn as Linda in Lumina Theatre Company’s The Wedding Singer earlier this year as she flawlessly belted her way to the top of the vocal chain; Kristen Wigg brought pop and elegance that the crowd was able to bop along to like those at record hops that were all the rage in the 50s and 60s with her vocally friendly runs and serenade skills; and together they were an anthology of contemporary music history and the epitome of what a three part harmony girl group ought to be and why they’re a significant part of the performance scene. As for the drag performers of the hour, Jules Hart gave Priscilla its heart and feeling as Tick/Mitzi in one of the most beautiful and emotional portrayals of the character in recent memory that connected with him further than a personal level and brought tears to our eyes on multiple occasions, especially when he was subjected to homophobia in Broken Hill and when he formed an unbreakable bond of love with his son; after a fascinating career that has spanned for over thirty-five years, Mark Monroe gave Priscilla its strength and leadership as Bernadette in the performance of a lifetime that could go down as one of his finest to date as he incorporated his experience in both the theatrical and queer community into his portrayal and was able to guide his fellow cast mates to greatness with impeccable timing and respectable self-love values; it was no secret that Lochlan Erard gave Priscilla its attitude and fire as Adam/Felicia in a performance that he had the ability to shape specifically for him as if he originated the role himself and despite his character spitting some of the bitchiest wisecracks in theatrical history, we couldn’t help but fall in love with his killer strut for his sassy recital of gay anthems, dialogue and dance numbers, want to comfort him after narrowly escaping hateful rape in Coober Pedy and praise him for achieving his dreams on top of Uluru; and together, they all delivered performances like no one else could and they could easily garner award recognition when the season comes around and their moving portrayals alone were a testament to their undisputed purpose and belonging in the theatre and queer communities we all love so dear.
I believe CentreStage have turned in what may be their best production to date with their adaptation of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert but don’t take my word for it, the fabulous audience response would help anyone recognise that themselves. The company wrapped up their season with the biggest of bangs that could blow boxes apart with arguably the greatest costumes and makeup the amateur circuit will see this year, choreography that real life drag queens would envy, performances that could capture our hearts, musical direction that can take us back and direction that successfully got the overall messages of the production across. It may have only been the first time I’ve ever attended a CentreStage production but after witnessing this display, I assure you it won’t be my last. Special shoutout to Maddy Pratt, Dana Singer and Marvellous Mark Monroe for your mind blowing work on Priscilla and also to David and Brent Greenwood for personally inviting me to my first CentreStage show back in May, it was worth every second. Congratulations to the entire company for a massive and magnificent season, continue colouring our world and GO WEST!
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