Saturday 9th September 2017 at the Grand Opera House, York.
Forget what you think you know about local renditions of large scale musicals. I’ve seen a fair few disasters in my time but by golly, York Stage Musicals are really in a league of their own, and they’re bringing something special to the stage. I must admit that I booked this by accident, assuming from the advertising that it was the returning international tour of this fantastic musical, so I openly confess that arriving to the theatre, there was a distinct unease about the whole thing… But you could have knocked me down with a feather by the end of it all; this production of Priscilla laughs in the face of limited budgets, shakes free from the small scale expectations of local companies and offers up a fabulously ambitious take on a firm favourite – and it’s funny, it’s naughty and it’s fabulous, possums!
The musical is based on the Aussie film hit of the same name by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott and follows the story of Tick/Mitzi, Bernadette and Adam/ Felicia; Tick takes a worrying call from his wife (!) who wants him to meet the son he has never met…from there he convinces old pal Bernadette, former drag queen, now a transgender woman, and a carefree, fearless youngster, Felicia, to take a trip to perform their act once more. There are minor frictions, explorations of friendship, family and societal prejudice along the way – not to mention a fair few revelations, plenty of great songs and lots of humour. Toe tapping tunes include It’s Raining Men, Shake Your Groove Thing and Hot Stuff to name just a few, and they’re incredibly entertaining to watch thanks to stunningly playful, vibrant costume designs. The script is winkingly naughty, downright bawdy in places but always funny – even if we are forced to view ginger biscuits in a whole new light for the rest of our days…
Central to the success of this production are the impressive performances of the leads. Tick/ Mitzi is played by Joe Wawrzyniak with great warmth and an endearing uncertainty about the direction his life seems to be taking him. Playing Adam/ Felicia is Jacob Husband, with a slim physique and constant preening, he captures the character very nicely indeed. Most impressive of all by some distance though is Alex Weatherhill as Bernadette; Weatherhill’s performance is possibly the most gentle and emotive portrayal of the character that I’ve seen. The warmth of his characterisation makes it impossible not to connect with the vulnerable yet feisty transgender character with a heart as big as her bust and an acid tongue to bat away naysayers – Bernadette gets many of the best comic lines in this musical, and Weatherhill’s delivery is stellar. The chemistry between Weatherhill and Craig Kirby, playing Bob, the love – interest, is lovely and with Kirby’s endearingly bumbling performance beside Weatherhill’s lovable self-doubting portrayal of Bernadette, they do great justice to a heart warming stage relationship.
The trio land the various wonderful comic lines beautifully and their comic timing is wonderful. Though Husband’s voice doesn’t quite keep up with the power and quality of Wawrzyniak and Weatherhill’s, particularly as the acoustics were off in a few places, drowning him out almost entirely, three deliver the poppy musical numbers with plenty of zest and sass. That said, the ballads are beautiful too – with the heartfelt performances from Wawrzyniak and Weatherhill bringing depth to their sequin-clad, eccentric characters while the harmonic rendition of True Colours brings pimples to the arms and tears to the eyes. Also largely responsible for the success of this production are the substantial pipes belonging to the Divas, played with colour, energy and great high notes by Lauren Sheriston, Joanne Theaker and Jaqueline Bell. Richard Barker impresses with legs for days and an incorrigible portrayal of the comic Miss Understanding while Louise Leaf earns big laughs with her performance as the odious bar owner Shirley, making the most of her stint and her enlarged bosoms to get the audience gafawing.
Okay, okay, even with all this glowing praise, there are definitely small reminders that this is a local production rather than a perfected international company. The reminders come namely in the relatively poor consistency with accents, a deflating attempt to include audience members on stage and some rickety set pieces, but they get the most important things right. There are a few minor wardrobe malfunctions, some weaker performances in the ensemble numbers and a more commendably physically diverse cast than you’d find in the West End, but praise where praise is due; this is a stonkingly good production of a musical that is incredibly demanding to deliver with any kind of credibility.
I’ve seen the West End and international touring companies perform Priscilla thrice and it remains one of my favourite musicals – for a relatively small scale company to achieve such heights performing a show of such high calibre and costly costume demands is no small feat. A great performance of Priscilla requires four specific things: first and foremost, the outlandish, well-made costumes worth their weight in gold are a must; great sets of pipes to lift the spirits; an ability to land every sassy aside with precision and a great big beating heart at the centre of it all – does this production fit the bill? It’s a hearty yes from me! With incredible costuming in a production of this scale from Charades Theatrical Costume, energetic lighting from Magnus Leslie, a reverent homage to girl group choreography from AJ Powell and fantastic direction from Nik Briggs, this production forces us to view local productions in a whole new light and York Stage Musicals are most definitely one to watch. If you’re looking for a feel-good show which promises spectacle, big laughs and bigger heart, get yourself to see this production.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert plays at the Grand Opera House, York until September 16th and you can get your tickets here.