WHILE Red Concepcion played to the gallery as the loud Felicia, Jon Santos played against type by reining in his zany and off-the-cuff impulses to breathe life to the prim and proper Bernadette.
Wedged in the middle was Leo Tavarro Valdez, without a doubt the most seasoned performer in the group, who seemed to have strangely chosen to downplay his role as Tick/Mitzi in Full House Theater Productions’ staging of the musical “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.”
Directed by Jaime del Mundo, “Priscilla” was inspired by the 1994 feature film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” It revolves around a trio of “showgirls”—two drag queens and a transsexual—who decide to leave the comforts of Sydney to perform in a remote resort casino in Alice Springs.
Instead of flying, they opted to drive westward aboard a cheap lavender camper van-slash-bus named Priscilla to save on money. It was during their weeklong journey across the desert that they encounter all sorts of strange situations and characters, including homophobic hicks living in the middle of nowhere.
It was also during the trip’s initial phase that Felicia and Bernadette’s heated exchanges crackled and brought the audience in stitches. Their differences underscore the fact that gays themselves aren’t a homogenous lot.
Due to a dramatic development along the way, the two were able to rise above their differences and work as a team. They even became true soul sisters by the time they reached Alice Springs.
Tick/Mitzi was the glue that kept the entire venture from falling apart. Alas, if only he could help himself conquer his own insecurities and bouts with self-doubt.
Apart from inducing boredom and a recurring test on their nerves and comfort zones, the dessert trip also made them grapple with one another and themselves as they wrestle with various inner demons—from aging to the life-threatening consequences of having a night of stupid fun.
But it was more than just the usual gig for the burdened Tick/Mitzi since the trip to Alice Springs would not only reunite him with a female friend, but also introduce him to their young son Benjamin.
Twists and turns
Life’s full of unexpected twists and turns that it would probably require a longer running time to explain how such an unlikely development happened. But even without a concrete backstory to shed light on the past, the openly gay Tick/Mitzi’s current concerns were valid.
How would Benjamin react once he learns that the entertainer-father he adores isn’t a Tom Cruise after all, but more of a Ru Paul? Would the boy despise his absentee dad? How would Tick/Mitzi take it should that happen?
The musical was first staged in Sydney in 2006, before moving to Melbourne, New Zealand, West End and Broadway. Apart from touring the UK and the US, Brazil and Italy also staged their own productions. Now, it’s the Philippines’ turn as envisioned by people at Resorts World Manila.
Apart from people’s fascination with drag queens (at least, “until the sun rises,” as Bernadette so cynically put it) and the immortal pop songs and disco ditties from the ’70s and ’80s the characters either lip-synch to or sing, “Priscilla’s” success and longevity stems mainly from a simple but universal story.
As told from the viewpoint of three “perverts,” that story teems with all too human concerns and needs such as understanding, acceptance and, despite differences in people’s mindsets and sexual orientations, a call for humanity to respect others’ differences and points of view.
Homosexuality may not be contagious, but we all know that not a few people who fall under such a “category” are shunned and discriminated against. But, as the trio showed, many gays are too damn fabulous, talented and creative in their chosen fields to be ignored, let alone contained.
Worthy of its sequins
And under such pretext did Del Mundo and the rest of his cast and crew, including costume designer Edgar San Diego, choreographer Nancy Crowe, musical director Inday Echevarria and set designer Jo Tecson, came up with an engaging production worthy of all of those sequins, spandex and false eyelashes.
You don’t have to be gay or a woman to appreciate the show’s production values—from its pre-selected repertoire, which includes such gay anthems as “I Will Survive,” “I Love the Nightlife,” “Mac Arthur Park” and “It’s Raining Men,” to San Diego’s all-original costumes.
San Diego was tapped to design and execute a new set of costumes, as the show’s originators abroad reportedly forbade Resorts World from copying and even deriving inspiration from the original.
Priscilla, the bus itself, which turned from lavender to pink due to a twist in the story, and how it was mounted on a revolving stage and set against a changing video wall to simulate movement, was equally impressive.
I used to look down on Resorts World’s use of its much-touted video wall in lieu of the conventional fly system, which is an art unto itself. But somehow, use of its video wall has improved and become more and more indispensable with every production.
Running away with show
Of course, a musical is only as successful as its performers. Concepcion easily ran away with the show not only because of his role, but also because of the commitment he gave in breathing life to a flamboyant character.
If you think Concepcion was good while he was lip-synching—the guy acted every inch like a star performer from the now-defunct Coco Banana during a dream sequence—wait until you hear him hit the high notes in numbers requiring him to sing. Indeed, Concepcion was even better!
Santos is no great singer, but the impersonator “with many faces” more than made up for such a deficiency through timing and characterization—he looked believable as a cross between a “Stepford Wives” character and your cranky old maid aunt.
In a production where his hands were tied from doing adlibs and on-the-spot improvisations, Santos relied on a combination of experience and instincts to get him through. A lesser performer would have been eaten alive by Felicia. But Santos, as Bernadette, was able to hold his own.
It was Valdez’ rather laidback performance, which left us wondering. Was it deliberate or were our expectations simply too high after having seen him do great work on stage as the Engineer in “Miss Saigon” and as the King in “The King and I”?
Valdez seemed to be holding back as well during his spot numbers, especially in “True Colors.” He seemed content to allow his two co-performers to shine and even steal the spotlight from him.
To be fair to Valdez, his character was the least colorful and the most difficult to portray in a production where more is more. As a guy by day, and a drag queen by night, Tick/Mitzi looked normal beside the snooty and perennially blonde Bernadette and the amped-up Felicia.
He was able to nail the anxiety act as well as provide moments of warmth to the production, especially during his scenes with Benjamin. We only wish that Valdez had also gone all out when he was grooving and trading vocal fireworks with the rest of the “girls.”
Support provided by the Divas, led by singer Bituin Escalante, was also noteworthy. After all these years, Escalante has reaffirmed through “Priscilla” that she’s still one of the country’s best singers.
We also wish we could have seen more of Michael Williams, who had a small but significant role as Sydney club owner Miss Understanding. (The role was reportedly first offered to Vice Ganda, who had to turn it down because of his busy schedule).
He could have easily played one of the queens, especially Bernadette. But as one of Resorts World Manila’s artistic directors, a position he shares with the equally accomplished Menchu Launchengco-Yulo, Williams seemed content to play a smaller role this time.
And since the cast presumably had ample time to rehearse and perfect the production, why didn’t anyone bother to learn how to sound like a real Aussie?
Except for Santos, whose Aussie accent came and went, none of the Filipinos in the cast spoke English the way they do Down Under. Like kids in call centers, they all delivered their lines in a neutral American accent.
Charo and Ivana
But as far as accent goes, Japs Treopaldo, as Bob’s supposedly Filipino wife, should really work on hers. Instead of sounding like a vulgar and unlettered Filipino speaking in English, Treopaldo came off as a cross between ’70s Latina comedienne Charo and Ivana Trump.
More attention should also be given to Felicia’s Kylie Minogue number. The moment came and went without much of an impact after it was established much earlier that doing a Kylie medley on top of one of Australia’s mountains was on Felicia’s bucket list of things to do.
A friend told me that when “Priscilla” was staged in the United States, people behind it ditched Minogue, a superstar in her native Australia, in favor of Madonna. The decision was quite understandable since, apart from being a gay icon herself, Madonna is much more popular than Minogue in the US.
But as a whole, “Priscilla” is a highly entertaining and must-watch musical with all the right songs and ingredients to broaden minds, open eyes, warm hearts and set feet dancing along the aisles.
“Priscilla’s” story and how its characters were able resolve their respective issues seem a tad too simplistic. But if we look closely, life is really far simpler and less complicated than what we make it to be. Tick/Mitzi found this out for himself in the end.
If you haven’t noticed it yet, not a few of the real and imagined problems and conflicts raging in our heads never really materialize. In fact, many of them eventually solve themselves even before we know it.
“Priscilla Queen of the Desert” will run until July 13, 2014 at the Newport Performing Arts Theater, Resorts World Manila. For inquiries, call Ticketworld, (02) 891-9999; Resorts World Box Office, (02) 908-8000; or log on www.ticketnet.com.ph.