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Canberra Today 3°/9° | Saturday, April 13, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

‘Priscilla’, queen of The Q, hits the heights

“Priscilla’s”, from left, Joe Dinn ( as Tick), Jarrad West (Bernadette) and Garrett Kelly (Adam). Photo: Helen Musa

Musical theatre / “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical”, directed by Jarrad West. At The Q until May 22. Reviewed by IAN McLEAN

COVID-19 implications have seen this Free Rain production of “Priscilla” delayed on two occasions, the show finally reaching the stage 18 months after rehearsals commenced. 

Revised production schedules have resulted in numerous cast changes with the program revealing that, thanks to illness, up until opening night, the complete company had not ever all worked together. 

It is testimony to the determination and perseverance of the producer, production team, cast, musicians and crew that the pink bus finally revved up and rolled into town.

While there was great excitement about finally overcoming all hurdles and appearing on stage, certain nervousness was evident and the show commenced in a rocky fashion with early technical issues and a lack of surety amongst the cast. This took a while to settle but by act two the show hit its straps and the fruits of countless rehearsal hours were fully realised.

The musical is based on the 1994 film, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”. It then later became a hugely successful stage show which utilised well known (predominantly disco) songs of the era to tell the story of two drag queens who team up with a trans woman to venture through the Australian desert in a converted bus (Priscilla) aiming to perform their drag show at an Alice Springs resort where one of the trio is to meet up with his long lost ex-wife and son. 

Jarrad West (Bernadette), Joe Dinn (Tick/Mitzi) and Garrett Kelly (Adam/Felicia) head the cast and, after that initial hesitation, provided powerful portrayals of their very different characters. 

West, who also directed the production, had massive dual responsibilities but shone as the kind and empathetic Bernadette. 

His superb comic timing ensured that every funny line and joke was delivered to fullest effect while his tenderness, particularly in scenes with Bob the mechanic (Pat Gallagher), was gentle and moving. 

Big-voiced Dinn made a welcome return to his hometown Canberra stage after 20 years working overseas. His singing of “I Say a Little Prayer” settled the show in act one while his “Macarthur Park” boomed solidly throughout the theatre. 

Kelly played the brash, bold, over-the-top Felicia with aplomb. His exaggerated movement and witty (and mostly cruel) asides and interjections were perfect in creating required tension between the three. 

There were many performances of note. Steph Roberts (also associate director) in the cameo role of Shirley, the rough barmaid, was particularly amusing while the voice of Steph Maclaine as the opera soloist was stunning. The three divas, who virtually narrate the story (Janie Lawson, Hannah Lance and Chelsea Heaney) suffered from the early issues but, once their vocal balance was rectified were powerful, particularly with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”.

Michelle Heine’s choreography was, as ever, inventive and strong, and the well-disciplined ensemble interpreted her outrageously garish moves with energy and enthusiasm. Many varied dance styles needed to be performed. Jordan Kelly was particularly impressive with his exuberance.

An amazing 440 colourful costume pieces were utilised, a mammoth effort from costume designer Fiona Leach and her team as they produced everything from pink paint brushes to iced VoVo biscuits for the company who, incidentally, coped very well with many rapid costume changes.

Musical director Alexander Unikowski and his nine-piece band captured the feel of every song with ease, but felt subdued in the mix. Brass and percussion were hard to discern so the overall sound lacked a driving, punching quality. By the same token, that meant the vocals were always dominant.

Lighting design from Phillip Goodwin was spectacularly bright, colourful and atmospheric while sound design by Nick Cossart, apart from the aforementioned band mix, ensured that lyrics and dialogue were constantly crystal clear.

“Priscilla”, in the ’90s, was perhaps ahead of its time in its story of embracing diversity and appreciating love in all of its forms. The need for that understanding and acceptance remains real today and “Priscilla”, with its ockerisms and unique portrayal of Australian culture, remains a fine vehicle for conveying the message in a fun but also delicate and meaningful way.

After such a long time waiting, this production will bring great joy, pleasure and appreciation of others to its audiences.

Reviewer Ian McLean is an honorary member of the Free Rain Company. 

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