I barely remember the movie that inspired this musical shown back in 1994. I knew it was about three drag queens (played by Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce) who were stranded in the middle of the Australian outback, but I recall nothing more.
This year back in May, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" returned back to pop consciousness as a splashy big musical theater production at the Resorts World Manila, starring Leo Valdez, Jon Santos and Red Concepcion. Oddly, I did not really get the chance or the urge to watch the show throughout that entire 3-month run. Then in October, we heard the news that this same show went on to play at the Resorts World in Sentosa, Singapore to much acclaim as well. After that success, the show has returned to RW Manila for a final limited 8-show engagement. The right opportunity just came earlier this week, so that finally, I was also able to see it last night.
Tick (a.k.a. Mitzi Mitosis) was a drag queen burning out with his routine in Sydney. He receives a call from his ex-wife Marion who invites him to bring his act to her new casino in Alice Springs in the middle of the Australian desert, and at the same time meet the son he left behind, 8 year old Benjamin. Tick invites his two good friends to come with him, though the two did not really get along at first. Ralph (a.k.a. Bernadette) is a transsexual, who used to star in an old school sophisticated drag queen act called Le Girls. Adam (a.k.a. Felicia) is a brash newcomer in the drag act with more flamboyant routines. They drive from Sydney to Alice Springs in a bus they painted pink which they baptized with the name Priscilla.
RW shows are known for their lavish sets and costumes, and this one is no different. They used the LED backdrop to very effective use to create extra dimensions on the stage. The rotating center of the stage was put to good effect for set changes, character movement and show off their central set piece, the bus Priscilla herself. There was a live band playing the musical accompaniment for all the retro hit songs the actors were singing, which was great. Director Jaime del Mundo had all the ingredients for a successful musical show and he made the best use of them all.
Michael Williams has taken over the role of Tick from Leo Valdez. Williams has this sad face that felt so right for this role. He was great in those dramatic scenes and songs ("I Say a Little Prayer", "True Colors"), especially when he was with Guido Gatmaytan, who played Tick's son Benjamin ("Always on My Mind'). He was also fearless in drag ("I Like the Nightlife","I Will Survive"), though his solo routines ("MacArthur Park") seemed more subdued than other two.
Red Concepcion finally found the role that fit him like a glove as Felicia. I know he is a good actor and singer, but I always felt something lacking or not exactly right. From the first time he appeared on stage with the song "Venus", Concepcion really owned the stage with his flamboyant strutting, big dance moves, skimpy costumes and hyper eyebrow lifting. His other solo spots were also show-stoppers, lip synching to a La Traviata aria and flirting with danger in "Hot Stuff."
I have to confess that I was disappointed that I did not catch Jon Santos as Bernadette last night. Even in the first run, I thought the only big reason to catch Priscilla was to see the comic genius of Jon Santos in action. However, as the play went on, it was clear that alternate Raymond Concepcion can also inhabit the dignified skin of Bernadette very well indeed. His best numbers were "A Fine Romance" with the Les Girls, and its reprise with the mechanic they met on the road Bob (Henry Strzalkowsky). I can imagine his singing is better than Jon Santos'.
We have lead star actors playing in supporting roles and in the chorus. Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo played smart and snappy Marion. Pinky Marquez played a very butch Shirley. To see OJ Mariano transformed into a tall Tina Turner-ish character named Ms. Understanding, with her sequined minidress, high heels and big green shaggy wig was great fun. The three Divas -- Lani Ligot, Tammy Canlas and the always smashing Ima Castro (who had replaced Bituin Escalante from the first run) -- had strong voices and great harmony with each other. I did not know that Red Nuestro could dance so well.
There were some numbers that did not come across too well for me. Act 2 opening number "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" was rather lackluster. Felicia's final solo number "Confide in Me" was a bit of a let-down. They should have done "Like a Prayer" as the Broadway production did. In fact, the lack of songs by gay pop icons Madonna and Cher can be felt. The Filipina mail-order bride Cynthia was played too annoyingly as a stereotype, though her "talent" with the ping pong balls was hilariously staged.
Overall though, this was a very entertaining show. The songs were all so familiar and so fun to hear and see come to life in those elaborate group numbers. For me, the absolute best numbers I was shamelessly singing along to the most were "Don't Leave Me This Way", "Go West" and "We Belong". Everything is so high energy. You will find it hard to resist getting up to dance with the cast at the finale. Even if you are not too much into the drag queen act, the nostalgia of hearing all this great retro music performed live with big production numbers is enough good reason to go catch it.
"Priscilla" has three more shows to go at the Newport Performing Arts Theater. Today December 6 there are two shows, at 3 pm and 8 pm, and tomorrow December 7, one last show at 3 pm. Tickets range from P3,700 to P1,200, with various discount promos you can check out at the RW website.