Much has been said about the abundance of ‘jukebox’ musicals in the West End: shows that are fashioned around a soundtrack of songs by an artist or genre. Some manage it more successfully than others. In Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical, the stage version of the cult 1994 Australian film, which opened last night at the Palace theatre, the chosen selection of songs fits like a pair of made-to-measure Jimmy Choos.
Its characters would demand nothing less. Drag performers Tick (Jason Donovan), Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and Adam (Oliver Thornton) may be travelling the expanse of the dusty outback in a battered old bus, but they won’t ever look anything less than fabulous. As their story unravels – each is crossing the desert from Sydney to Alice Springs on a personal mission of discovery – the lyrics of the show’s soundtrack of classic disco tunes mirror the action and add an appropriately thick layer of camp. So angst-ridden drag queen Tick sings Say A Little Prayer to a photo of the son he is hoping to meet, aging transsexual Bernadette serenades her departed lover with the funeral lament Don’t Leave Me This Way, and the ensemble tells the trio to Go West.
In its choice of songs – bar a couple of recent additions, including Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head – and in the storyline, the musical is faithful to the film that saw Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce play the central trio. But even more so than the celluloid version, the musical does not take itself seriously. Though there are moments of seriousness – Adam’s encounter with a bunch of angry rednecks, Tick’s reunion with his son – these are short-lived, the mood quickly broken by a dose of Aussie humour, a costume change and a song.
Sheldon, making his West End debut after originating the role of Bernadette in Sydney, imbues his character with an endearing warmth. The matriarch of the three, she has seen it all before but isn’t quite ready to leave it all behind, as her sharp sense of humour suggests. Thornton revels in being outrageous as the showiest of the trio, Adam, whose drag persona Felicia is just an excuse to unleash himself, in all his glory. Donovan, who breathed a huge sigh – of relief or tension perhaps – at the curtain call, may still loosen up into a role which bridges the gap between his travelling companions.
There is strong support, too, from Clive Carter as the mechanic who helps the girls and takes a shine to Bernadette, and the singing Divas, who, like impossibly glamorous parakeets, hang suspended from the ceiling as they sing the songs that the trio mime to during their act. Then of course, there is the famous bus, named Priscilla, which takes centre stage for much of the show and is cleverly painted pink by the characters.
But the main cast member in Simon Phillips’s production must be the costumes. Designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner have scavenged the very depths of their imaginations to come up with an array of outfits which give Les Cagelles in La Cage Aux Folles a run for their money, culminating in an animal-themed finale which puts a very large and very Australian full stop on the end of this most Aussie of musicals.