Boas! Feathers! Dance hits of the ’70s! The Mercury Theater’s production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert—the Musical had plenty of all three. There was a core fan base of the musical and the movie in the audience who clapped to the beats and sang along when encouraged by the cast. This production is directed and choreographed by Christopher Chase Carter with the verve and polish of a Broadway musical. It is based on the film of the same name and the book by Stephan Elliot (who directed the film) and Allan Scott.
The story is about three entertainers—two drag and one transgender—who form an act and drive across the Australian desert in a big bus named Priscilla. Tick (Josh Houghton) gets a call from his wife Marion (Brittany D. Parker) who tells him that he needs to come home and meet his son who is now six years old. Tick calls on a widowed friend Bernadette (Honey West) and tells her that to go on tour would be the best thing to help her through grief. Tick already has a performer named Felicia (Shaun White) to round out the trio. The plot is not the strongest suit of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It may have been in the movie—c’mon Terrance Stamp as Bernadette—but in the musical it is about the glamour and camp of drag done really well with the plot as secondary.
Houghton shines as Tick. He has a beautiful voice and great stage presence. Shaun White is a lightning bolt of energy as Felicia. He throws out bitchy zingers with perfect timing and is a fabulous singer and dancer. The legendary Honey West shows off some fine acting chops as the lovelorn Bernadette. West has been a star of the cabaret scene in Chicago since the days of Gentry back in the ’80s. She has Mae West vibes and sings quite well. Some of the dance moves appear to challenge West but she pulls it off in true diva style.
Speaking of divas, the trio of divas who do most of the singing for the lip synching is composed of Heather J. Beck, Lydia Burke, and Jessica Brooke Seals. The Divas open the show and tear the house down with “It’s Raining Men.” The Divas are all powerhouse singers who have appeared in a lot of musicals including Mamma Mia (Beck), Sophisticated Ladies (Burke), and Women of Soul (Seals). After the so-called Disco Demolition of 1979 in Chicago, it is essential to remember that the Black and LGBTQIA+ community kept dance music alive in spite of it being lumped under the “disco” umbrella. Almost all of the songs that I remember required lungs and vocal chords that could bring the thunder. The Divas have it all.
Some ensemble standouts are Michael Kingston as Bob the mechanic who helps get Pricilla and her passengers to their destination. Kingston gives an understated and strong performance as the lovestruck Bob who has seen a lot of the world and shares a similar heartbreak with Bernadette. I will never forget the performance of Ayana Strutz as Cynthia, an entertainer with special skills. Strutz is hilarious and nearly steals the show with some athletic moves, comic lines, and juggling. You may not be able to look at a ping pong ball as just a ball again. Gabriel Solis plays Tick’s son Benjamin and he gives a sweet performance as a knowing and wise son. Daren Patin’s turn as Miss Understanding is one to watch. He is quite the vision as the hostess at the Cock-a-Too Cabaret.
The costumes by Robert Kuhn are fun with both campy glamour and a touch of S&M. The wigs by Keith Ryan are monumental—as they should be. It enhances the joyous fun of this musical. Meh on the “hot girl summer.” Treat yourself to some hot drag summer. I recommend it as the antidote to chronic seriousness. There are even light-up beverages from the bar and cool Priscilla swag for sale! I had to have a fan that snaps just so when I open it. Go see it.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert—the Musical is playing through September 11, at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, next door to the Music Box Theatre. Tickets are $39-$85. For more information please visit www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com. Covid precautions are enforced. Don’t be that kind of drag—mask up!
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!