After having seen the musical Priscilla, I've decided to come out: I'm a Sondheim fan. Yes, Into the Woods, Sweeney, the lot… even Merrily We Roll Along and The Frogs. Every cd, the live recordings, the scores. Now I've got that off my chest, I can say how thoroughly enjoyable I find Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. No, it's not Sondheim, Shakespeare, or even Stephen Schwartz, but Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott have written a funny, dirty, gaudy, trashy, disco-rhythmed feel-good show with its heart firmly in the right place.
It's not all sequins and silicone either. One touching moment comes after Adam, the youngest of the three drag queens – the musical follows them on their journey from Sydney to Alice Springs – is beaten up in a small mining town in the Australian Outback. Bernadette, the older and wiser of the trio, reflects,
It's funny. We all sit around mindlessly slagging off that vile stink-hole of a city. But in it's strange way it looks after us. I don't know if that ugly wall of suburbia has been put up to stop them getting in or us getting out.
The relationship between Tick – stage name, Mitzi Del Bra – and his wife and son in Alice Springs, is simply but effectively portrayed, as is the growing affection between Bernadette, a transsexual, and the rough-hewn mechanic who gets Priscilla (the bus the three travel in) back on the road.
Of course, the real fun comes with the musical numbers: boas, falsies and false eyelashes, improbable platform shoes, and Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner's stunning costumes which won them an Oscar for the film, an Olivier Award for the West End run and a Tony on Broadway. They remain stunning even twenty years after the release of the movie.
The music score is a homage to disco with I Love the Nightlife, Go West, It's Raining Men and the gay-anthem I Will Survive, but there are ballads too and a nostalgic A Fine Romance. But the number that creases me up for it's pure silliness and exuberance is MacArthur Park. In the film, Bernadette is discovered asleep outside, her head resting on a cake as though it were a pillow. Tick says, “I've waited all my life for this! Bernice has left her cake out in the rain”. And that's it. However, in the musical, the stage explodes with an array of bright green costumes and lights as Tick sings:
MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark.
All the sweet, green icing flowing down;
Someone left the cake out in the rain.
I don't think that I can take it,
‘Cause it took so long to bake it,
And I'll never have that recipe again, oh noooooo…
Giant cup-cakes, with their runny green icing and electric candles, swirl around the stage holding umbrellas. It is utterly stupid and gloriously vibrant.
The Priscilla playing at Milan's Teatro Manzoni, with English surtitles for the Expo punters, is the UK touring version (the production went around Italy last year, and after Milan in mid-October it will move on to Rome). It is more streamlined than the original, but has a more intimate feel that encourages following the piece as a work of drama and not just as a frothy bit of nightclub entertainment.
Tick is subtly underplayed by Cristian Ruiz. He possess a glorious voice and the scene with his child is truly touching. Marco D'Alberti's Bernadette is thoroughly believable: foul-mouthed, funny, sage and tender… it's a fine balance and no mean trick to pull off. His worldly-wise drag-queen gives the musical its centre, but when he lets it rip – both vocally and physically – he holds no punches. Riccardo Sinisi as Adam is frothy and fun, naughty but nice. He first appears looking gorgeous in a pink ‘Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend' frock, yet with very masculine muscles showing and male nipples peeking out. It had two young men, sitting in front of me with their girlfriends, shifting very uncomfortably in their seats.
Noteable too were Elisa Marangon as Tick's wife and the extraordinarily leggy and lean Pedro Batista Gonzalez who gives a mean Tina Turner.
Musicals must be sung and danced by actors to fully work. Shows like Priscilla, with larger than life characters, are easy to overplay, and doing so destroys all plausibility. Here the performers bring truth to their roles, revealing the heart beneath the glitter. As Bernadette (and Cyndi Lauper) sing:
Don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colours, true colours
Are beautiful like a rainbow.
Via Alessandro Manzoni, 42, Milano
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.