When Resorts World Manila revealed its mounting of the musical ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’, based from the 1994 film—‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’—it did excite me. Having seen some scenes from other productions abroad via online, I was looking forward to a spectacle, which the Newport Performing Arts Theater is known for.
To compare the Philippine production with the foreign ones is maybe unfair, but I just can’t help it.
Not all that Glitters, Flatters!
Given the theme of the musical is about gay power, pride, and celebration—it is expected that there’ll be glitzy wardrobes presentations, which makes the experience complete. Outfits inspired from Charlie’s Angels, Cher, and Diana Ross were brilliantly incorporated. But providing these types of costumes, particularly here in the Philippine setting, it is no longer fascinating; it is rather unpalatable and predictable. I remember that the chief costume designer claimed that the designs were mostly of the actor-friendly, but why are the actors wearing such seemed uneasy and having difficulty with their moves? Or is it just Leo Tavarro Valdez having a hard time with his costumes when I saw him on opening night?
Some concepts and designs weren’t festive, but ineffective since it created chaos onstage. The costume emphasis took away one of the highlights of the show—the pink bus named ‘Priscilla’ where deeper relationships got forged; making friendship and discovering second chances of loving as well as accepting one’s sexual preferences and all. When the bus was onstage, it felt rather funny.
Flamboyant shouldn’t be limited to ‘extraordinary headdresses’. The pink bus wasn’t sparkling but rather boring. The bus is the centerpiece and that’s there the three lead characters draw their strengths, their confidence, their cores—it should have been aptly projected on the bus.
A Case of Miscast?
Getting the right actors to breathe into the characters that Stephen Elliot and Allan Scott must have envisioned it; weren’t totally justified in this local production.
When the three leads were revealed—Red Concepcion was [for me] the one who fit the role and he just did it very well as he owned the stage and stole scenes from his co-actors—Valdez and Jon Santos.
Though I was imagining the character of Bernadette as old as I based it on the 1994 Australian comedy-drama film, which had Terence Stamp as Bernadette, then Santos couldn’t be considered since I found him a bit younger. But because of Santos’s impeccable performance, he was able to erase my reservations and impressed me with how he tackled his role as the aging transgender diva. But if the role was given to a more senior actor, then Miguel Faustmann could very well fit into the character. Nonetheless, Santos just breezed through his first-ever fictitious character onstage after all those successful real-life impersonations he did in the past.
If Bernadette is Jon Santos, perhaps, she also deserves a more ‘commercial-looking’ and not too mature Bob. Are we having scarcity of fine actors? I have nothing against Henry Strzalkowski since he is one good performer, but it could have been more ‘romantic’ to have capitalized the romantic angle of Bernadette and Bob. If Santos was given a partner that would tickle the audience fancies of Bernadette finding an almost-perfect man for her, it could have been a lot better. It’s just my thought.
The most critical role was Mitzi’s. What were the considerations for Valdez to take on the character who has been trying to hide his real sexuality to his only son to Marion, played by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo? Is it because he’s bald which is close to the actor Wade McCollum who did Mitzi in its US Tour or the semi-bald Antonello Angiolillo of the Italian cast? But unfortunately, Valdez is just too over-the-top or I must say—he just doesn’t fit the bill. Joel Trinidad could be the likely candidate and could have probably given a more appealing Mitzi onstage. If we talk about voice range, maybe Robert Seña is apt for it, too. The problem with Valdez is simply his facial expressions. When he sang his songs, he forgot he has audiences (including me) to convey a message, an emotion that he failed to come across. There are scenes that just need nuances and subtleties and need not any superlative acting. He must have forgotten that there’s a video camera that magnified his face on the side screens of the theater.
Bituin Escalante is already a ‘given’ that she would stand out from the two other divas. If Escalante could have starred with May Bayot and Lani Misalucha, then maybe the Divas, themselves could have more equal footing. But I always love Escalante, no matter what. It doesn’t matter if she upstaged the two other female performers.
OJ Mariano did a stirring performance as Farrah. Though short, it was remarkable. Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo never failed to give justice to any role assigned to her. Michael Williams also stole some moments as Miss Understanding (I love his parts); though mainstream performers like Vice Ganda and Jimmy Marquez could have also given their unique interpretations of the character.
Off Moments and LED Disasters!
Newport Performing Arts Theater do take pride in having the largest LED screen in Asia, but for crying out loud—enough of it. I have seen how the theater have maximized the three Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals—‘The Sound of Music’, ‘The King and I’, and ‘Cinderella’ were all enthralling, but repeating it in this production especially the opening scene where the song ‘It’s Raining Men’ was performed—a makeshift bridge could be perfect than use the LED screen to create the needed illusion. The Madrid and the Buenos Aires productions were spectacular in presenting that bridge. This is where real sets create wonders and leave lasting impacts in telling a story. Whether the purpose is to give a cinematic effect, a LED backdrop cannot substitute that experience,
There were two disappointing scenes that really bothered me. First, was the telephone conversation between Mitzi and Marion. Did the director Jaime Del Mundo realize that making Marion move around defeats the purpose of painting the idea that they were miles apart? Lauchengco-Yulo kept on covering Valdez, who was making his ‘inappropriate’ and ‘too conscious’ facial expressions onscreen. Why didn’t the director just make Marion stay in one place and a spotlight focused on her as opposed to making her going around Valdez? Such movement could have worked if there wasn’t any camera focused on the actors and projected on the side screens. Attention to detail is necessary, but this one escaped the director’s eye.
The pink bus that was supposed to be a delight to the audience eyes—it became an eyesore instead. When it moves sideways, the highway is incongruous with how the bus is moving. Since the production capitalizes on that LED as a backdrop, then using it well and realistically is something that could have made the scene more appealing made it rather disgusting.
In its future production, the use of the LED screen as a dominant backdrop should be limited. Less is more. It’s already an ‘abuse’ and it’s sickening to have it.
“Priscilla’ in its entirety is entertaining, but here’s hoping that when it goes on tour—some scenes should be tightened. Despite some off-scenes, choices of costume concepts (even if they tried to have a Filipino tone in it); if its sole purpose is to show how festive the show is—then they have succeeded, somehow. Out of five stars; I’d give it a two-star rating. And consider taking away that doesn’t contribute in making the story move forward. Start in replacing one of its leads.
The show closes today, July 13. For more information, visit its site.