Orpheus Musical Theatre Society have brought to the stage another light-hearted musical, doing what they do best to a very receptive audience. The Meridian Theatres-based Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a piece of light fare that captures the cult status of the original film, but with its sometimes-dicey sexual and racial politics, the show seems like a bit of an odd choice in 2019.
The campy show directed by Derek Eyamie and Shaun Toohey is a fun romp, but a bit shallow. The lead actors Andy Allen-McCarthy, Toohey, and Eyamie know how to please the crowd with their extravagant pop song numbers as the larger-than-life drag queens with attitudes and costumes to match. The chemistry between the three and with other central characters, like actor Lawrence Evenchick’s delightful Bob, is also solid. In a show leaning heavily into campiness, the costuming stood in a league of its own. Colourful and over-the-top, co-costume designers Guylaine Roy and Mélanie Evans created a vibrant and hilarious series of costumes that had the audience laughing in their seats.
The large ensemble kept the party atmosphere going with their humorous song-and-dance numbers and were a particular hit in their gaudy costumes. It’s hard not to love a bunch of dancing pink paintbrushes, though there were several scenes where the choreography could have been tighter. The pit orchestra was tight and had obviously worked hard to put on a solid performance. The set, co-designed by Jenn Donnelly and Steve Jones, was also a show-stealer, particularly the detail put into Priscilla the camper van, complete with seating space, and which opens up in the final scene to reveal a beautifully-painted Ayers Rock.
In their directors’ notes, Eyamie and Toohey write that they wanted to show the painful truth of discrimination while highlighting the power of love and friendship. The show certainly shows the strength of love and community, but it lacks a real punch. The show is, at times, too light. On the few occasions where serious issues are raised—such as when the drag queens come back to Priscilla after a night in town to find someone had spray-painted “fuck off faggots” on the side of the bus—the issue is resolved through one upbeat song and then everything returns to normal. It’s a play in which nothing bad happens. That’s not exactly how it works in real life.
Similarly, the original mid-1990s film was criticized for its portrayal of people of colour, and this stage production doesn’t do much to update it. The film was famously singled out for its portrayal of the Filipino Cynthia as a mail-order bride likely picked out from the brothel, and this production’s use of a stereotypical Aborigine character hamming it up for the tourists is a bit odd for contemporary Canadian standards of how Indigenous people should be portrayed—it probably would not have been that hard to update the role a bit.
Priscilla is supposed to be fun, and this production certainly is, but fun shouldn’t have to come at the sake of ignorance or shying away from any serious issue. The directors stated that they wanted to explore the “gut-wrenching truth regarding discrimination and hatred” but the keep the show relatively light, choosing instead to pave over issues of discrimination with jaunty tunes. It’s a well-performed and very fun musical, but not exactly one that achieves all its stated objectives.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.