Chicago Theater Review: PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (Pride Films and Plays at the Pride Arts Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 16, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is, of course, a much-loved 1994 “staying out” film from seemingly straight Australia. It spins the peripatetic tale of three Sydney drag queens who stuff their sequins and silicone onto the title vehicle (a “wayward bus” worthy of Steinbeck) and cross the Australian Outback. So many fish out of water, these “down-under” denizens are taking their act to an Alice Springs resort in the navel of the subcontinent; both minor and major miracles happen along the rocky road.

The film, which spawned a forgettable American spin-off, works on many levels: as a journey of discovery like Lewis & Clark or Huck & Jim; as a pilgrimage to a purer past (suggested by their final stop—the aboriginal holy place of Ayers Rock, now called Uluru); and as a buddies’ bonding adventure where strange bedfellows find common cause. Even after a predictable bad-ass gay-bashing, opposites attract and decency prevails. What’s not to like?

In Pride Films and Plays’ Chicago premiere of this Tony-winning romp, Priscilla also works as a 145-minute musical. Directed by Derek Van Barham and David Zak, it’s fairly bursting with nostalgic disco and later classics, and surging with Jon Martinez’ eye-popping, heart-stopping choreography. It’s equally a fine, form-fitting inaugural production for the troupe’s 85-seat Pride Arts Center (one of two stages).

Employing G. Max Maxin’s wizardly scene- and mood-setting projections and video, Jeremy Hollis’s supple set, John Nasca’s Ziegfeld-gorgeous costumes, and Robert Ollis’s driving musical direction, Priscilla is hard to hate. Resistance is futile: By the end it’ll get loved, a lot or a little, depending on your tolerance for feel-good, button-pushing, exemplary intentions, high jinks galore, sing-along jukebox favorites, in-your-face happy hoofing, and enough wishful feeling to fuel a festival.

Carrying this confection are three ripe and ready artists: Chicago’s beloved Honey West, her voice a special treasure, tackles Terence Stamp’s signature role of acid-tongued, maternal and “trans”-cendental Bernadette. This living legend is all that’s left of the vintage act “Les Girls” that once seduced Sydney. An old-school performer who believes in lip-synching and tough love, this sassy survivor has just lost her longtime love.

Happily, our “down-underdog” finds bedrock consolation from her best bud Tick, a.k.a. “Mitzi” (personable Jordan Phelps). A possibly “bi” entertainer, the elegant impersonator is eager for a reunion with his loving ex-wife (Britt-Marie Sivertsen) and teenage son (Asher Ramaly). Finally, there’s hard-bodied “bad girl” Adam, a.k.a. “Felicia” (galvanic Luke Mierdiercks), a no-nonsense trickster who bitches back at Bernadette and enjoys being transgressive in homophobic desert dumps like Broken Hill, Woop Woop, and Coober Pedy.

Providing a perfect period backup/backdrop, the Motown-like Divas (Jill Sesso, Tuesdai B. Perry and Rebecca Coleman) recall the doo-wop chorus in Little Shop of Horrors: Guiding the caravan, they swell the sheer joy of favorites like the Village People’s “Go West” and more proven delights: “It’s Raining Men,” “I Love the Nightlife,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (from the local yokels), “Boogie Wonderland,” “Hot Stuff,” “Shake Your Groove Thing,” and the first-act finale “I Will Survive”, the credo of this creation.

Despite some cringe-worthy put-downs from scathing Bernadette (“a cock in a frock on a rock,” the “two faces you see in a mirror,” and “I think I just heard a whore moan” are among her lightest epithets), the lady earns some late-blooming love from a tender-hearted mechanic (John Cardone). Tick finds no cause to fear his return to his once and future family. And Adam gets to perform his “Kylie” tribute at sunrise on a sacred stone.

The audience gets a ton of fun too, stretching from the Cockatoo Club on the coast to colorful country crossroads to a gold-lame extravaganza in a central spa (the marvelous anthem “We Belong”). Not left out is the film’s spirited “Sempre Libera”, Verdi crooned by a splendid soprano from the top of a bus to the hills of the Outback.

Almost as passionately persuasive as the equally tolerance-teaching La Cage aux Folles, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, like it or love it, is a guaranteed good time.

photos by Paul Goyette

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Pride Films and Plays
Pride Arts Center – The Broadway
4139 N. Broadway
ends on February 12, 2017
EXTENDED to March 12, 2017
for tickets, visit Pride Films and Plays

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kat Paloyan February 9, 2017 at 7:50 pm

Hi, this message is for Tuesdai, who’s appearing in Priscilla. This is Kat from Camp Pinewood. I miss you so much. I wish you could come back to camp or send me a message or something. Please email me if you get this I’m begging you.

To my favorite counselor!


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