By Laurie Scarborough
The house lights go down, the orchestra bows up, a hush falls, and the disco ball descends: Australian smash-hit musical, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, has hit Cape Town audiences with one fabulous click of a heel.
The South African premiere of the show is helmed under the musical’s original director, Simon Phillips, but features an all-star South African cast, including SBAM artists Candice van Litsenborgh, Michael William Wallace, and Dirk Joubert.
From the the first number, which sees three singing Divas float from the eaves, right to closing number, featuring adults dressed as koalas, kangaroos, and dragon lizards, the show never stops entertaining.
The story follows a transgender woman and two drag queens as they road-trip in a bedazzled bus named Priscilla to the centre of Australia. The road is a bumpy one though, and together they tackle the backward-minded small town folk who ostracise them, and in doing so, discover who they really are, and who they want to be.
As a jukebox musical, the familiar songs dazzle in new ways, taking disco to a deeper level. The beautiful rendition of “True Colours” for example, sent shivers down my spine with the on-point harmonies and poignant delivery. Of course, there were plenty of upbeat traditional disco numbers, but repurposing them to assist a plot that highlights inclusion, togetherness, acceptance, and embracing your identity, made them all the more meaningful.
The costumes were really phenomenal and almost were the stars of the show. But if it weren’t for those damn talented people in the costumes, the show could have just been a cabaret fashion show. The entire cast, leads and ensemble, were truly outstanding: singing, acting, and dancing their little (exposed) butts off. True entertainers, them all. There was really nothing to fault, except the perhaps the Australian accents (a difficult accent to master).
I think a musical like this is really the perfect fit for Cape Town, because of the culture, population, and generally progressive attitudes. It’s strange to think that this show, that celebrates transgenderism and non-heteronormative orientations, originated from Australia, where gay rights laws are still so far behind. Although there is a depiction of antagonism from “the backward small towners”, these characters are one-dimensional and peripheral characters, which means that the audience can easily dismiss their attitudes. Anti-acceptance is all the more scary and hard to address when it comes from people who you regard as well-considered.
However I think the show is more of an uplifting story that focuses on the positive development of identity in the face of adversity, and the importance of friendship, rather than the serious side of societal rejection. And it achieves its means most dazzlingly, with so much humour, and through the magic of music. Even the ou toppies sitting behind me boogied out of the theatre, bad hips and all.
The show has a 4-week run in Cape Town before transferring to Joburg and then an international tour. Click here to book your tickets. Bring your tiaras and feather boas.