Priscilla, Queen of the Musicals

Willoughby Theatre Company - Priscilla Queen of the Desert - Grant Leslie Photography

Review: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical – Saturday, 15 May at The Concourse, Chatswood. Reviewed by Danny Waterson.

★★★★★

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of the Desert is one of the most iconic Australian films of all time. Likewise, the spin-off musical has proved popular the world over. The latest stage production is the Willoughby Theatre Company’s colourful and cheeky version, which opened at The Concourse, Chatswood over the weekend, after being postponed for a year due to Covid-19.

The cool autumn weather didn’t dampen the anticipation in the air for opening night. It was clear from the beginning that the audience was in store for an entertaining night, with a tongue-in-cheek welcome and reminder to keep our masks on.

The story of Priscilla is familiar to most, telling the tale of two drag queens and a trans woman who trek from Sydney through the Australian Outback to perform a drag show in an Alice Springs resort. During their bus journey to the Alice, they deal with old issues such as homophobia, acceptance, love, loss and family – and find new friends along the way.

The talented ensemble filled the stage with energy and colour from the opening tune, ‘It’s Raining Men’. The three divas (Nikole Music, Karen Oliver and Jessica Zamprogno) – pitch perfect and dressed in outrageously camp costumes – thrilled the audience from the moment they were lowered from above. The Tina Turner hit ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?‘, sang with gusto by Miss Understanding (Jerome Study), set the creative tone for the show.

Willoughby Theatre Company’s production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical fills the stage with energy and colour. Photo: Grant Leslie Photography/supplied.

Stepping into roles made famous by other actors is always a challenge but the cast did an exceptional job bringing their own personality and warmth to the roles. The chemistry between the three leads and supporting cast was evident to the sold-out audience from the get-go. 

In the role of Tick/Mitzi, Brent Dolahenty was simply brilliant, with a powerful voice offset by a touching vulnerability. The character of Bernadette, made famous by Terence Stamp in the film and later, Tony Sheldon in the musical, was played this time by Glenn Morris. Morris is wonderful in this role, making it his own, with stage presence, talent and perfect comedic timing. Tom Gustard, meanwhile, was a joy to watch playing Adam/Felicia: sassy, empathetic and a fantastic performer. When the three performers came together to sing the Cyndi Lauper classic ‘True Colours’ at a poignant point in the story, it was truly something special.

In a media release prior to opening night, Morris said: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to play such a well-loved and iconic role from stage and screen. To be part of such a heartfelt, but hilarious story that means so much to so many people is a career defining moment.” He certainly lived up to those lofty words on opening night.

Brent Dolahenty (pictured) played Tic/Mitzi in the production. Photo: Grant Leslie Photography/supplied.

Throughout the evening, I was struck by the sense of community on stage; the supporting cast and ensemble all displaying such talent and passion in unison. Each actor looked as though they were having a great time on stage and their enthusiasm was infectious, creating a palpable sense of fun, good humour and bonhomie among the audience.

Sarah Dolan was hilarious as the loveable pub bogan Shirley; the crowd clearly enjoyed her and her magnificent cleavage. Also impressive was Reilly Morrison as the Indigenous character, Jimmy. Both gave cheeky, entertaining performances, bringing their characters to life.

Geoff Stone as the sensitive Aussie larrikin Bob and Taryn-Lea Bright playing Marion both gave credible supporting performances. Portraying Bob’s mail-order bride Cynthia was the talented Susana Downes, who gave the character her own spirit and attitude, especially evident in her humorous performance in the outback bar during ‘Pop Muzik’.

Mitzi’s son Benjamin, played by young Mitch Perry brought the cute moments; he surely has a bright future onstage. 

The music in this show is perhaps best described as a party mega-mix of the funkiest, upbeat disco tunes imaginable, mainly from the the 1970s and ’80s, including ‘I Will Survive’, ‘Go West’, ‘Colour My World’, ‘I Love the Nightlife’ and ‘Boogie Wonderland’. Newer musical additions to the production were welcomed, such as the Kylie Minogue medley comprising ‘Come into My World’ and ‘Confide in Me’ – the staging of which Minogue the showgirl herself would be proud.

This production at the lavish Chatswood Concourse has a wonderfully witty and topical new script, especially adapted for this new show. Jokes about Schapelle Corby, Prince Edward and Tom Cruise went down well with the good-natured crowd, getting plenty of laughs. The script had exactly the right balance of the serious and the comedic.

Spectacular costumes and sets are hallmarks of the Willoughby Theatre Company show. Photo: Grant Leslie Photography/supplied.

The stage itself was visually impressive, with imaginative use of colourful lighting, impressive props and striking sets, such as the show-stopping pink bus, cleverly designed by award winning Queensland designer Josh McIntosh especially for this production.

The production team includes some of Sydney’s leading names in community musical theatre including director Adam Haynes (Catch Me If You Can, The Full Monty), choreographer Janina Hamerlok (42nd Street, The Boy from Oz, Cats) and musical director Jeremy Curtin (42nd Street, Evita).

Costumes are a huge part of the Priscilla story – and this dazzling, visually stimulating show was enhanced by awe-inspiring outfits. The Willoughby Theatre Company had access to the original stage production’s costumes – including more than 1000 costume pieces and almost 100 headdresses – and new, bespoke costumes further enhanced the flamboyant, colour-filled stage, all expertly coordinated in this show by Joy and Tom Sweeney.

The costumes in the Willoughby Theatre Company production were well above and beyond usual community theatre standards. Photo: Grant Leslie Photography/supplied.

During the funeral section of the story, against the backdrop of The Communards hit ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, the ensemble wore spectacularly detailed headpieces. Later, the stage would be filled with dancing, outsized cupcakes to the amazement of the adoring audience, who were clapping, cheering and singing along for the entire performance. 

In a spectacular finale, glitter exploded into the auditorium as the set lit up, the show ending with a medley of classic songs ‘We Belong’ and ‘Finally’ as the vibrant stage was filled with an energetic cast in a riot of colour and extravagance.

This production of Priscilla is as good as you will see on any stage, anywhere in the world.

The Willoughby Theatre Company’s production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical plays The Concourse, 409 Victoria Avenue, Chatswood until Sunday, 30 May. Tickets ($56.50 – $67.50 plus booking fee) and further info available from www.willoughbytheatreco.com.au.