Review – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical – Palace Theatre


Monday night J and I went to the Palace Theatre to see the much hoo-hahed “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert the musical. I was quite chary of seeing this show for many reasons, the first being that with as much money behind it as it has, I figured it would be the kind of wide-appeal, commercial clap-trap I usually avoid like the plague; the second being that it was at The Palace, home of the worst seats I’ve ever experienced in London. But then I saw the West End Whingers’ drooling review. My God, I thought, I may be mistaken! In fact, their review filled me with an incredible desire to drop everything and see the show. However, I was further discouraged when I read that premium seats were going for £95. I mean, Jesus Christ, what do these people think they’re selling? The only 20 seats with an unobstructed view in the entire theater? And for me, these last two months have been ones of theatrical penury as I penny-pinched in a somewhat backwards-looking attempt to cover the cost of my recent move.

Fortunately, came through with a sweet little £40 sale that was *erk* a bit out of budget but doable with an extra-added dedication to home cooking and staying out of pubs. And I read somewhere (sorry I can’t quote it!) that the costumes are fantastic but likely to start wearing down quickly with heavy use and that it might be a good plan to see the show early in the run while they are still fresh. So rather than waiting for affordable tickets to pop up in another eight months or so, I was able to see the show only a week after opening night! I even got main floor tickets, though Row F seats 28 and 29 meant we were a bit far to the edge, yet not sitting under the overhang like poor 30 and 31 (though 31 got to go on stage and dance with the cast, so there ARE advantages)! However, I was able to see all of the stage clearly – even though a tiny bit of the curtain waaay up in the left corner that said “you are here” (next to a map of Australia, in the center). So, overall, I was happy with my seats.

And the crowd was good, too – the house seemed packed and everyone was very “up” – and of course there were lots of gay men there and people of both genders with bottom-lit cocktails in their hand acting like they were ready to have a good time. Unfortunately some of them appear to have not been taught their “company manners,” as the woman sitting beside me insisted on TALKING OVER THE SONG that opened the second act. Jesus Christ woman, if you can’t shut your yap, maybe you oughta stay home, huh? There are LIVE PEOPLE ON STAGE SINGING and I am PAYING TO HEAR THEM, not you. However, people were generally so cheery -laughing and radiating energy – that for once I did not turn around and give her the shit-eye because I didn’t want to ruin the mood.

But, I digress.

I have still not seen this movie despite being in many ways part of its target audience, so I was unfamiliar with the story behind it, which appears to be as follows: A mediocre drag queen (Tick, played by Jason Donovan, whom I also had not heard of, but please remember that before I moved to the UK I had also never heard of this Kylie girl), decides to drive from Melbourne to Alice Springs to meet his 6 year old son, and convinces his old friend Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), a retired transsexual of the old-school drag regime, and Adam/Felicia (Oliver Thornton), a white-hot newcomer, to join him with the promise that they will have a gig at a casino. But first, they need to cross the Outback in a giant silver bus (Priscilla), going through one after another hick town on their way to the middle of nowhere. Hilarity ensues.

I mean, seriously, that was pretty much the plot. Character development? An increase in self-knowledge? Nope, none of that here, and certainly no political statements of any sort (other than a bit of “why do these people hate us,” but even that was thin and only came up once), which was actually a bit of a relief. No, this show was all about big silly costumes, sight gags, and fun disco tunes, as performed by the leads and a cracking cast that were truly diverse. Actually, I wanna do a shout-out to Wezley Sebastian (Miss Understanding) and the other tall drag-queen looking person who were in so many of the ensemble scenes, because even at the very end these workhorses were performing every scene like they were the stars and they expected people to be watching them. It was really quite impressive!

But … really … it still wasn’t … it just wasn’t as good as Anything Goes. I mean, I realize I have different standards for musicals than other people, but I found the songs didn’t compensate for plot. I mean, it would have all been fine in a disco, but I can’t get excited about a night of watching people lipsynch to songs that have mediocre lyrics at best (though I appreciated that they had the lovely divas overhead actually singing). The opportunity to hear songs that brilliantly illustrate a story is actually a major reason I enjoy musicals, and this just wasn’t happening for Priscilla. Also, the voice of the women singers was positively tinny. I think this is just a problem with the whole “people singing through microphones” phenomenon – I mean, basically, if they’re not trained to sing to the back of the stage, they’re going to sing with this weak little head-voice that just has no power to it. This is not the kind of voice that would inspire today’s drag queens – and it sure as hell didn’t inspire me.

There was a fair bit to laugh about (such as the completely crude scene with the mail-order bride and the ping-pong balls and a hysterical pair of sagging falsies) and truly amazing costumes (the dancing cupcakes about made me cry, but basically anything that Oliver Thornton put on suddenly looked much better than it had any right to), but I just wasn’t caught up in it like I was hoping to! I’ll blame a bit of this on Mr. Donovan, whom I thought was just flat out dry and not really either an exciting performer or even a slightly gifted singer. Tony Sheldon was quite good, a perfect incarnation of the role (and an actor I’ll be watching out for in future productions) and talented as all get-out, and Oliver Thornton was just a brilliant shining star who shone across the stage with super-nova intensity, but with so much of the action focused on Tick … eh, well, I guess that’s why there were so many dance numbers. At any rate, if you’re looking for a good night out with the boys or a great hen party activity, this would probably be a great show for you to catch, but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. I probably just ought to go see that bare-bones Cole Porter show they’re doing at Sadler’s Wells so I can get what I need out of a night of musical theater.

(The reviewed performance took place Monday, March 30th, 2009. The bus did break down at one point and they had to entertain us while they fixed it. Remember, if you have an aisle seat toward the front of the stalls, you may get to dance on stage. Pity I missed my chance for my big West End debut!)

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13 Responses to “Review – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical – Palace Theatre”

  1. makingplans4nigel Says:

    thanks for returning the favour, i too was nearly seduced by the whingers enthusiasm and was starting to shoot evil glances at the piggy bank but it’s back to the cheap seats at the royal court.


  2. Rogue Zentradi Says:

    I wonder if there’s something here us American types just aren’t getting, as I see the locals raving their heads off (some to the point where I wonder if they’re delusional…) because I felt largely similar (though a bit more bilesome).

  3. Straight Girl Says:

    You have different standards than most people when it comes to musical theatre? It appears that you spent more time contemplating the cost of the tickets, the people that sat in your vicinity in the theatre and yourself, rather than actually paying attention to what was going on stage. Your arrogance is laughable.
    Rogue, you’re right. You American types (you and Webgirl) aren’t getting it. Thank God, all Americans aren’t of your sort.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I think calling people “arrogant” because they are not rich, and giving them shit about their nationality, means that you are, to mince no words, a bitch.

  4. harriet Says:

    (1) The costumes more than survived a two year run in Australia. I believe that some of Tony Sheldon’s costumes, are, in fact, the same ones he wore in the Australian production. So that rumour about the costumes not lasting is pure rubbish.

    (2) Having not seen the London production, I can’t comment on the script. But I have heard the script has changed so there’s more focus on Tick, rather than Bernadette and Felicia (which is a shame, because there was never that much focus on him). Which is a shame, because Tick is the dullest of the characters (and, in Australian, was portrayed by the weakest actor in the cast).

    • webcowgirl Says:

      This is interesting to read because I think I would have had a much better chance of emotionally connecting to the show if they had pursued the original storyline. Tick was not a character that had a particularly interesting story to tell, but Felicia and Bernadette would have really worked well, I think. Bah on them for watering down the story to pander to the casting (my guess being that they think having Jason Donovan is going to be a big draw and thus they expanded the role).

      The costumes were probably the most amazing ones I’ve seen in the years I’ve been watching shows in London so it’s good to hear they’ll hold up over time. I’ve got some friends who want to go when their finances improve, and they’ll be happy to know the cupcakes will be in good shape when they finally make it.

  5. Rogue Zentradi Says:

    I hate to tell you, Straight Girl, but when you’re on a budget (and you are certainly lucky these days not to be!), the cost of a ticket can be a dealbreaker when going to shows: if I wasn’t working freelance press and a member of a seat-filling organisation, I wouldn’t be going to the theatre these days. Everybody I know who’s my age (mid-late 20’s) and who doesn’t have a friend working at the Palace has said the same thing: Want to see Priscilla, can’t justify the cost of decent tickets.

    Or are we supposed to completely ignore the “business” aspect of show business?

    And, lastly, thank goodness most Brits aren’t as obnoxious as you are. Most that I know have the ability to make a decently witty put-down.

    (Sorry for comment-jacking, webcowgirl. Make sure I find £5 to buy you an apology drink if you’re at the Whinger party.)

  6. Straight Girl Says:

    Oh dear, I didn’t realize that by implying arrogance was somehow an indication that I was judging your financial situation. Understand, that I am in no way, shape or form in a position to purchase tickets at box office prices. I love musical theatre, but the only way I’m able to feed my interest is by lining up for rush tickets.
    My apologies. What I meant was that I understood your excitement about your good fortune re the price of your tickets, I was just disappointed to read through your detailed explanation regarding your tickets, the people around you, etc. and a little put off by your review.
    (Which in hindsight is ridiculous, given that everyone is entitled to their opinion!)
    I guess that in a time when shows are closing (big and small ) around the world it saddens me.
    Rogue, that’s when where we get to the business side. With the economic situation being what it is, this is when the people on the business end have to be more creative than ever to get people going to the theatre. Make it affordable for them and they will come.
    It’s in these rather dark days that we need entertainment.

    Again, when I reread my reply I realized that I did indeed sound obnoxious. Apologies.
    Will now back away slowly……….

  7. Colin Mayo Says:

    My wife and I went to see this last night – we were in the balcony seats F16 & F17 and could not see a THING for the first twenty minutes when all the action is at the front of stage. Afeter that it was little better with the safety rail obsuring our view. WE WALKED OUT. Others were complaining too. IF YOU SEE THIS SHOW DO NOT GO IN ANYWHERE NEAR THE BALCONY.

  8. DJ Says:

    Must have been to a different production altogether guys!
    Went to see the production tonight and had a blast! I hadn’t laughed and enjoyed an evening at the theatre like that in ages! and my partner and I weren’t the only ones; the entire audience was on their feet and clapping and singing along like mad.
    I do not know the Australian production but in the movie Tick is also the main part. it is his life we follow primarily, with Bernadette’s and Adam’s intertwined.
    There is some lipsynch obviously as they are playing drag queens working in a club! but the singing is live on stage through the amazing divas.
    The three leads also have a very decent singing voice and the choregraphy and dancing is real cool too. I enjoyed the 70’s choice of songs which made sense and was very clever.

    We paid £63.50 for right in the middle first row of dress circle seats and it was worth every penny!

    I an a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, so my tastes are usually toward more ‘serious’ musicals but Prescilla is pure delight and entertainment. A real feel good musical. The set and costumes are also amazing.

    This isn’t the kind of musical which requires a complex plot; and is the same sort of musical as Mamma Mia which I also love. I imagine people who loved the film also love this musical production. But each to their own …

    I will agree that Oliver Thornton (Adam/Felicia) is one of the hottest stunning guys I’ve seen on stage in a long time. The whole cast/ensemble is pretty hot too!

    Now … I have NEVER met anyone who doesn’t know who Jason Donovan was!

  9. jmg3 Says:

    My partner and I found ourselves in London in early May of this year. While visiting from the United States, we found time to see 3 shows: Madame De Sade with Judi Dench, Priscilla the Musical and Rhydian. All were fantastic. However, Priscilla Queen of the Desert was by far the best of all three. We sat in the middle of the mezzanine. The house cheered, sang along and finished with a standing ovation. We thought it was wonderful and have shared that sentiment with our friends back home. We look forward to Priscilla’s arrival on the Great White Way!!!

  10. Best London theater, 2009 « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] of the year: the nominees were: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical; Company; Forbidden Broadway; (the all male) Pirates of Penzance; Silence the Musical. Actually, […]

  11. 2010 Olivier Awards – did they deserve it? « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] So, first, a look at the shows that won minor awards (each linked to my original review): PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT – THE MUSICAL: Best Costume Design I have continued to be mystified by the popularity of this thin on the ground […]

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