Musical review: Priscilla Queen of the Desert – the musical, Mandurah Performing Arts Centre

This accomplished jukebox musical served as a reminder of how far society has (and hasn’t) evolved. 
Priscilla Queen of the Desert. A couple of drag queens and a transwoman stand on stage in front of an orange backdrop and a prop bus. They are in extravagant costumes and are holding hands.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert – the musical is just as iconic as the 1994 film from which it was adapted and, thanks to its cult status, most people are familiar with the basic premise. But for those who haven’t had the pleasure, the story follows Tick – a drag queen whose belated call to parenthood requires a reconciliation of what he perceives as being two diametrically opposed identities. Tick’s secret wife, Marion, convinces him to travel from Sydney to Alice Springs in order to see their son, after six years of anxious avoidance. Tick initially refuses, until Marion calls in a favour by requesting he perform at her casino as his drag queen persona, Mitzi Mitosis. 

Perturbed by the prospect of combining traditional fatherhood with his unconventional personhood, Tick journeys through a series of remote outback towns, en route to Alice Springs, aboard a dilapidated bus named Priscilla. Accompanied by Bernadette (a transwoman) and Adam (a fellow drag artist), Tick negotiates figurative and literal paths through conditioned reluctance and tentative rebellion, towards a unified reclamation of self and other. The musical leans harder into uplifting buoyancy than its darker filmic counterpart, both as a general entity, and in the unique execution of this specific production. 

Priscilla: Queen of the Desert – the musical opened to a full house at Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, delivering an enthralling celebration of self-expression, vulnerability and love in all its forms. Attendees were urged to consider sociocultural trajectories via the inclusion of a short audio prologue, possibly precipitated by the existence of protesters camped outside the venue. Protest politics fall outside the scope of this review, but it’s fascinating to note that, 20 years after its initial release, Priscilla continues to serve as an active agitator of the zeitgeist. 

This particular production, directed by Karen Francis, exceeded expectations thanks to the technical excellence of a skilled creative team supported by an exceptionally strong cast, energetic ensemble and small but flawless orchestra. Hamming up the ocker accents, this quintessentially Australian story embraced its setting through a combination of characterisation, comedy and context. 

An array of ingenious stage design elements included a wheelie coffin, a LEGO bed and several humorous road signs. Priscilla herself was impressive, moveable and topped with a gigantic silver stiletto. Her innovative design featured a removable side panel that disappeared between scenes to reveal her fabulous interior. At one point, twin beams burst through a vanishing screen to reveal Priscilla’s headlights.

Later, in a memorable moment of operatic bus-roof singing, dazzling streams of light reflected off a sequined train in the brilliant execution of that emblematic scene. A commendable use of vertical space in both the set design and choreography elevated the overall production value.

The cast straddled multiple dichotomies in a balanced conveyance of subtlety and exaggeration, always highlighting humour without omitting heart. The lead trio Tick, Bernadette and Adam were magnetically embodied by Jamie Jewell, Gerard F Rosman and Braeden Geuer, respectively.

Jewell exuded utter authenticity, riveting audiences with his emotional nuance and dramatic flair. Rosman personified transwoman Bernadette with refreshing originality, flavouring their interpretation with hints of dignified Terence Stamp-esque elegance. Geuer as Adam was beyond brilliant, fluctuating fluidly between petulant, playful and provocative exuberance. The flamboyant warmth of Geuer’s performance elicited empathy while maintaining the obnoxious crux of his complex character.

The opening number rained men against a backdrop of silver sparkles and a mammoth Sydney Opera House. Miss Understanding (Beau Pash) set the stage with a perfectly balanced combination of glamorous sass and physical comedy, accompanied by the Divas (Kristie Corbishley, Lisa Taylor and Joanna Wilson-Smale) who carried heavy musical weight through the sheer strength of their vocal prowess.

The second act opened with a song from country boy Frank (Aiden Thomas), a notoriously unlikeable character lurking in the murky flannel waters of an outback watering hole. Ross’ captivating performance projected an air of intangible pathos into an otherwise bigoted antagonist, without undermining the villainy of Frank’s actions.

Other crowd favourites included Scott Hansen as endearing Bob, Alexandra Wall as Tick’s wife Marion and Luis Proctor as young Benji. Maita del Mar’s portrayal of Cynthia was robust enough to detract from the problematic undertones inherent to her role (if you know, you know). Yes, ping pong balls were… discharged. The audience responded enthusiastically to del Mar’s adroit humour and substantial stage presence, of course. 

A multitude of costume changes facilitated the aesthetic curation of atmosphere through the artistic deployment of palette, texture and shape. From shimmering mourners to a countrified disco, every scene boasted impressive examples of wearable decadence. Knee-high platform boots and a thong-dress functioned as a pink and green nod to the film, alongside cartoonish Gumby pants, emu headpieces and other distinctive gems. Sequins, feathers, corsets, glitter and tulle featured prominently from lead to ensemble, showcasing a considered cosmetic cohesion that cleverly avoided defaulting to undue uniformity.

On the surface, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a flamboyant romp with a disco-pop soundtrack. But a closer look reveals an affirming examination of love in myriad forms, from romantic and companionable, to familial and, by extension, love of the self. Memorable for its visual extravagance and camp comicality, this iteration explored themes of identity and empowerment via magnetic performances, quality choreography and directorial expertise.

Read: Performance review: Parrwang Lifts the Sky, Malthouse Theatre

Combining comedy and charisma like sequins and scarves, this accomplished jukebox musical served as a reminder of how far society has (and hasn’t) evolved. But, more importantly, it was a musical journey of fabulous fun, interspersed with innuendo and hilarity.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert – the musical
Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, WA
Written by: Stephan Elliott and Allen Scott
Musical Arrangements and Orchestrations by Stephen “Spud” Murphy
Developed for the Stage and Original Direction: Simon Phillips
Producer: Stray Cats Theatre Company 
Director: Karen Francis
Musical Director: Vanitha Hart

Vocal Director and Production Manager: Kristie Corbishley
Choreographer: Sydnee Hopkins, Rhiannon Francis, Lisa Taylor
Solo Choreographer: Beau Pash, Jamie Jewell
Stage Managers: Teaghan Lowry, Karen Francis
Head Artist: Bronwyn White
Set Design: Bronwyn White, Karen Francis
Lighting Design: Asha Perry, Karen Francis
Head of Costumes: Linda Lowry
Costumes: Kim Parker, Pat Francis, Ceri Willis, Sheryl Gale, Karen Francis, Jamie Jewell, Bronwyn White, Karen Karvis
Sound Technicians: Dylan Randall, Dylan Conroy

Projection: Alan White

Priscilla Queen of the Desert – the musical was performed 9-12 May 2024.

Nanci Nott is a nerdy creative with particular passions for philosophy and the arts. She has completed a BA in Philosophy, and postgraduate studies in digital and social media. Nanci is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing, and is working on a variety of projects ranging from novels to video games. Nanci loves reviewing books, exhibitions, and performances for ArtsHub, and is creative director at Defy Reality Entertainment.