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All hail the Queen!
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
By: Ava Baccari, Photography courtesy of Priscilla the Musical website
In the world of showbiz, all that glitters isn’t Gaga— in fact, the singer stands to learn a thing or two about performance from the original stage diva extraordinaire: the drag queen. With more false lashes and crinoline than a 1980s prom, the ladies arrived in town last night, Toronto— just follow the trail of glitter and pink feathers all the way to the Princess of Wales Theatre for the jaw-dropping, foot-stomping North American premiere of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. (FYI fist-pumping is still not cool).
When the shiny disco ball drops, the Drag Ladies sing. Three divas (and we’re talking actual ladies here) are lowered on to the stage, helming a belted-out, electrifying performance of “It’s Raining Men,” with a cast of androgynous superstar characters that could keep Cher in retirement for a few more years.
But this ain’t Vegas, baby— Welcome to Sydney, Australia, the drag queen capital of the world, “where we strutted out of the closet and into the wardrobe,” our first drag queen, Miss Understanding (a splendidly pink Nathan Lee Graham) told an uproarious crowd at last night’s opening performance. And the Down Under has never looked so snazzy. Glasses of Pink Bubbles, the fizzy rosé from Australian winemaker Yellowtail, along with feathery pink boas were doled out to the crowd, among which included Toronto’s finest drag queen performers (in full getup). Rumoured to have also appeared last night was the show’s producer, Bette Midler, who sat in on preview performances earlier last week.
Based on the 1994 film version, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the production follows Tick (Will Swenson) and his team of pink ladies Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and Adam (Nick Adams) as they travel through the Outback on a tour bus called Priscilla, who with her breakdowns and glittery pink paint job, is a diva in her own right. We learn early on that Tick, also known as Mitzi, was once married and has a five-year-old son, whom he’s never met for fear of his disapproval. But he makes a promise to meet him, carting along his fame-happy entourage for the journey, under the premise that they will perform at his ex’s casino when they arrive.
Prancing in and out of small towns as they make their way across the dessert, the ladies try to expand small minds with their over-the-top performances. But even their jazzy spectacles and cabaret charm can’t overcome the wall of intolerance they’re met with. (“Why do we continue to abuse ourselves night after night?” one diva asks the group. “So we can feel like real women,” is the response.) But Bernadette manages to capture the heart of a local mechanic Bob (Tad Wilson) who falls for the aging diva. (I have yet to see the film version, but I’m told by ELLE Canada’s editor-in-chief, Noreen Flanagan, that the tenderness of their relationship plays out better in the movie.)
And while the film originally featured Abba’s greatest hits, the dancing queens of the Mirvish production perform a montage of Madonna, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Donna Summers— disco and 80s hits dripping with all the flash and grandeur of a drag queen performance. Despite campy Aussie accents and a few technical stage glitches, the spectacle is pure theatrical magic. And the amount of costume changes that took place over the two-and-a-half hour set left me wondering if the backstage area looked like a tornado had whipped through the set of Spice World, leaving a mass of displaced cone bras and bellbottoms strewn about.
It’s easy to feel upstaged by the drag queen, with her tiny, burlesque bodices, brazen swagger and chiseled legs which she struts around in six-inch heels. Toss in Carmen Miranda-style hats and cracking the mystery of how she moves so fluidly becomes pointless in the grand spectacle it all.
Enjoy the show.
The Deets: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Mirvish Productions. Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, Toronto. Oct. 26-Jan.2. For tickets, call 416.872.1212.