The Aussie drag-queen saga gets a sequined shine in a storefront setting.
Considering it’s set against the vast grandeur of the Australian Outback, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert works surprisingly well jammed into a nightclub—perhaps even better than it does on the grand, Broadway-sized stage. After all, it could be argued this tale of three drag performers dragging themselves to a gig in the middle of the nowhere is really all about hustle, grit, and perseverance—about not giving up in the face of great adversity. What better way to bring that out than with a Priscilla where you can really see the actors sweat?
This production marks the 2011 musical’s Chicago premiere, and co-directors David Zak and Derek Van Barham, alongside music director Robert Ollis, choreographer Jon Martinez and a crack design team, have delivered a finer show than any large touring company could muster. It’s got an unvarnished, underdog vibe—like watching a drag show that just so happens to be a musical, instead of a musical that happens to be about drag. If Zak and Van Barham have succeeded at nothing else, it’s proving that there’s still some elasticity to the scrappy Chicago storefront style.
Furthermore, as a musical that so loudly and proudly celebrates gay culture, coming at a time when the hard-won victories of the gay rights movement are feeling especially tenuous, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is the perfect way for Pride Films and Plays to christen its brand new, two-stage Pride Arts Center. (It will take a show as fabulous as this one to start washing off the stink that the space’s previous tenants left behind.)
Priscilla is very much a jukebox musical, with a nigh constant barrage of ’70s and ’80s pop and disco hits like “Go West,” “I Will Survive,” “I Love the Nightlife,” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Whereas the majority of jukebox musicals—which contain only pre-existing music—feel like the musical theatre equivalent of reality TV, for Priscilla it only feels right. In a show about drag queens, and Australian ones no less, why wouldn’t they burst into a medley of Kylie Minogue?
The production stars inimitable Chicago theater and cabaret performer Honey West as Bernadette, the middle-aged, transgender drag performer who worries that her best days—and best men—are long behind her. Bernadette’s friend and fellow drag performer, Tick (Jordan Phelps), convinces her to join him and another performer, Adam (Luke Mierdiercks), on a casino gig out in Alice Springs—smack in the middle of the Outback. What Tick doesn’t tell either of them is that he’s actually going there to meet his son, Benj (Asher Ramaly), even though he fears that Benj will reject him.
In order to make the trip, Adam, who usually goes by his stage name, Felicia, gets the trio a broken-down bus they christen “Priscilla.” On the road to Alice Springs they encounter a host of not-so-friendly locals as well as a kindly mechanic, Bob (John Cardone), who just might be the man that Bernadette thought she’d lost her chance to find. Since drag performers typically lip-synch their routines, the trio of West, Phelps, and Mierdiercks are also backed by a trio of singing “divas,” played by Jill Sesso, Tuesdai B. Perry and Rebecca Coleman. All three are mightily impressive, but Perry’s performance of “Sempre libera” from La Traviata—which Felicia lip-synchs to while riding atop the bus in full regalia—is a true, drop-your-jaw show-stopper.
Yes, it’s true that the 1994 film on which the musical is basedcan seem a little long-in-the-tooth nowadays—what with featuring three straight movie stars playing two flamboyant gay men and a transgender woman—but its bones work perfectly fine for a musical. Though there are a few odd moments of dissonance when utterly sincere campiness of musical theater is juxtaposed with the highly ironic camp of drag, you’ll likely be too busy enjoying yourself to notice. There is one exception, however: the character of Bob’s wife Cynthia, an offensive and anachronistic Filipino stereotype that the musical’s creators, Stephen Elliott (who wrote and directed the film) and Allan Scott, should have left in the 20th century.
Pride Films and Plays. By Stephen Elliott and Allan Scott. Directed by David Zak and Derek Van Barham. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.