Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Written on November 10th, 2010

Priscilla Queen of the Desert


Written by Stephan Elliott & Allan Scott
Directed by Simon Phillips
Choreographed by Ross Coleman
Musical direction by Stephen “Spud” Murphy
Performed by Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon, Nick Adams, C. David Johnson
Produced by David Mirvish et al
Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
October 27, 2010 to January 2, 2011
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

A Campy Romp Across the Outback

Take a cult movie, spin it into a jukebox musical, add fabulous big budget costumes and a bus for a set, and you get Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Based on an Australian-made film, it’s the story of two drag queens and a transsexual who travel across the Australian desert in an old bus, which they have christened Priscilla. Along the way, they sing and dance to familiar hit songs of the past. These tunes become all-out big-time musical numbers.

Priscilla has been a hit musical in Australia and England, and now has a limited run in Toronto before it moves to Broadway. It’s campy and flamboyant, energetic and entertaining, and there’s even a thoughtful message tucked away in all the glitz. Priscilla tells us that everybody needs somebody to love, and the world has much to learn about loving in an accepting, non-judgemental way.

Tick (stage name Mitzi), Adam (stage name Felicia) and Bernadette leave their homes in Sydney to go to Alice Springs in the middle of Australia, a tiny town in the outback, recently buoyed by tourism with a casino. The three female impersonators are bringing their stage show to the outback. But Tick has an ulterior motive for the move. His wife, from whom he is separated but has a good relationship, manages the casino and says it’s time that Tick meets his six-year-old son. Tick agrees to the trip with much trepidation, the three “girls” make the journey in the bus named Priscilla, with both adversity and joy along the way.

In the past, drag queens simply lip-synched and acted out their songs, but Tick and Adam have are modern entertainers and do their own singing. This musical production gives it to us both ways – we hear our travellers sing, and then when they lip-synch, three divas descend from the sky to do the singing for them.

Tony Sheldon steals the show as Bernadette. A veteran of the stage in Australia, he charms his way into our hearts with his class act, full skirts and high heels. Nick Adams as Adam/Felicia has amazing energy, and captivates the audience as a daredevil, flying high on the roof of the bus. C. David Johnson plays Bob the mechanic who joins them, making an unlikely foursome. Johnson makes Bob, who appears to be a contradiction, completely believable. You’ll remember Johnson as Chuck Tchobanian from CBC-TV’s Street Legal, and also as the Captain in Stratford’s The Sound of Music. Will Swenson as Tick/Mitzi is not as successful in showing us both his sides. We know he’s supposed to be conflicted about being both a drag queen and a parent, but he doesn’t quite create the necessary empathy. Unfortunately, he doesn’t come through with his big musical number either: MacArthur Park should be the moving, rousing anthem. Nevertheless, it’s a lot of fun with giant cupcakes dancing while the cake is left out in the rain.

Keala Settle deserves special mention as the toughest chick with a mullet you’ll ever want to meet. Her facial expressions in the bar scene are priceless. The three Divas who descend to sing the hits – Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, and Ashley Spencer – all have amazing voices. The rest of the company are excellent dancers – never has there been so many muscle-bound legs moving effortlessly in spike heels – and those are both male and female legs…

The songs are familiar hits: What’s Love Got to do With It?, I Say a Little Prayer, Go West, True Colours, I Will Survive, Thank God I’m a Country Boy, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Hot Stuff, Always On My Mind, and more.

The costumes are incredible — there’s a dress that reveals puppets, dancing cowboys with glitter, sparkling giant paint brushes, rainbow coloured bell-bottoms, big hair that turns into cheerleaders’ pompoms, and Australian critters from kangaroos to koalas. And that’s just a few – one can’t imagine the hectic pace back stage with so many costume changes. The bus/set is also amazing, patterned after a sparkling Barbie motor home. And the wheels roll on as we see roadkill fly by.

Wear your best bedazzled frock, apply your glitter eye shadow, don your feather boa, and go see Priscilla. She and her girlfriends will welcome you.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert continues at The Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto until January 2, 2011. For tickets, call TicketKing 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or go to

Leave a Reply