When Simon Green, Bryan Buscher-West and Andre Torquato take up position in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert's famous bus and launch into Kylie Minogue's classic Locomotion, it almost seems like we're in the middle of the Outback rather than a rehearsal studio in North London.

Premiering in Auckland this weekend, the trio take the three starring roles of Bernadette, Mitzi and Felicia respectively in the latest staging of the highly successful Australian musical. This time, it draws its cast from productions across the globe.

"It's quite a jigsaw puzzle as we've never done a version like this where we have cast members from the original Australian Priscilla, the West End, Broadway, Brazil and the UK regional tour," says Dean Bryant, who has directed Priscilla since 2011.

"Everyone is already familiar with the language of the show, but our job in this rehearsal period is to put it all together into one version that works for everyone. So what you get from everyone is the knowledge of the world of Priscilla, but, at the same time, it still feels fresh because none have acted with each other before."


"The first time all three of us got together to do a scene, Dean said 'let's just give it a go and see what happens because you already know it,'" adds Green. "We all knew our own parts, so it just felt weird because we'd never rehearsed together before but everything was already in the right place at the right time."

The musical is based on 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which starred Terence Stamp as transgender woman Bernadette Bassenger and Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce as drag queens Tick "Mitzi" Belrose and Adam "Felicia" Whitely.

Since premiering in Sydney in 2006, however, the stage adaptation of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has taken on a life of its own. It was first performed in Auckland in 2008 but has since enjoyed a three-year run in London's West End as well as a successful stint on Broadway.

"What New Zealand originally got was the original Australian version," says Bryant. "We've made a lot of changes since then, so there's a new opening number and some new costumes, while the jokes have been refined and some scenes rewritten. There's also a better bus, so this is definitely the whizz-bang version of Priscilla."

Best known to Kiwis for playing Sofia Martinez in Shortland Street, Lena Cruz was in the 2008 production of Priscilla. Now, after an eight-year break, she has returned, again as Cynthia, a mail-order bride and erstwhile sex worker, who gets plenty of laughs for her unique table tennis skills.

"It's like being in a whole new show," Cruz says. "I hadn't done it since then, so everything is new to me. There are some things that are still as I remember them, but the show has also evolved, so the challenge for me now is to actually just keep up with everyone else."

Australian actor Ray Meagher on the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert bus says he can't wait to reprise his role in the musical. Photo:Jason Oxenham.
Australian actor Ray Meagher on the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert bus says he can't wait to reprise his role in the musical. Photo:Jason Oxenham.

It also stars Australian actor Ray Meagher, best known as Home and Away patriarch Alf Stewart, who plays mechanic Bob. Meagher describes him as a "salt-of-the-earth" guy who's still searching for his place in the world when he meets the drag queens. He first played the role in 2007 and then on London in 2010 and 2011.

Although the film is two decades old and the play has recently reached the 10-year mark, Priscilla's central theme of tolerance is as relevant as ever today. "If we have things going on like the shootings in Orlando then I feel like we still need to talk about this," says Torquato, referring to the killing of 53 people at a gay nightclub in Florida in June.

"We still need plays like this if things like that are still happening, as the story should never be stopped from being spread."

With the release of films such as The Danish Girl and television series like Transparent bringing the issue to the fore, Priscilla now appears to be in tune with current gender politics, as it explores the often-tempestuous relationship between Mitzi and Felicia and Bernadette's older transgender female.

"It's definitely the time of the transsexual right now," says Buscher-West, adding that you still rarely hear about someone like Bernadette, who is an older transsexual person.

"Nowadays it all seems to be about youth and beauty, and how can you stay young for as long as possible, so it's unusual to have a character who has lived a full life up to that point. I don't play Bernadette, but it's something I've thought about, and that's what makes her who she is. And my character is a professional drag queen, who is living in the closet as he is married with a kid, which is also something that isn't very common."

Having met his husband Joshua, Buscher-West - who is associate choreographer as well being part of the touring company - on Priscilla's North American tour, he's looking forward to arriving in New Zealand, where, unlike across the Tasman, same-sex marriage has been legal since 2013.

"Josh and I going to Australia after New Zealand, and it's going to be a bit weird as we're married but in their eyes we're not," says Buscher-West, who suggests that Priscilla's subtle approach to the controversial subject is the most effective approach.

"We try to disarm people with humour and our humanity and vulnerability. At the end of the day, the show could be about three boxers or three mechanics but it just happens to be about three drag queens, who are also human beings, who are going through their own struggles."

But despite its sombre subject matter, Torquato insists the musical is a play that doesn't take itself too seriously.

"Of course, there are the songs, the bus, the glitter and the flying, and people go and see the show for that," he says. "They go to the theatre thinking that they're going to see a certain something but they always come out a different way to how they came in. The message of the show is like a seed planted in the minds of everyone, who is sitting in the audience, and that's why it's been working so well around the world for so long."