Mercury Theater Chicago is adding some major camp to this summer with Artistic Director Christopher Chase Carter’s production of PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT. Based on the 1994 film by Stephan Elliot and with book by Stephan Elliot and Allan Scott, this romp of a jukebox musical features high-energy hits from iconic pop divas. The musical features an assortment of songs that audiences will immediately recognize including The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and many more. Eugene Dizon’s music direction ensures that these hits are delivered with the powerful vocals to match.
PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT centers on Tick (Josh Houghton), also known by his drag queen name Mitzi, who performs at a cabaret in Sydney, Australia. When Tick’s wife Marion (Brittany D. Parker) summons Tick back to the small town of Alice Springs to meet his six-year-old son, he grabs his best friends Bernadette (Honey West) and Adam (drag queen name: Felicia and played by Shaun White) to travel across the continent with him. Conveniently, Marion runs a casino in Alice Springs, which provides Tick with an easy ruse to convince Bernadette and Adam to come along for the ride—without needing to reveal the real reason for the visit. The eponymous Priscilla refers to the hot pink bus that Adam acquires to take these three drag queens through Australia.
While PRISCILLA does have a beautiful and light-hearted message about acceptance and staying true to one’s identity, many of the book elements are paper thin. Marion doesn’t seem at all angry that Tick has been absent from his son’s life for six whole years; instead, she seems merely sad and eager to have Tick back in her life. Parker’s portrayal of the role is lovely, but that doesn’t negate the fact that I don’t buy for a second that Marion wouldn’t be mad about Tick up and leaving. Likewise, brief scenes depicting homophobia and transphobia point at the hatred but don’t go deep. I will say, though, that Bernadette’s experience as a transgender woman is nicely developed in the text. While some past productions of PRISCILLA have cast a cisgender male actor in the role, West herself is also a transgender woman. This adds another layer of profundity to the character arc. West is an expressive actor, who can easily move from moments of high-energy drag performance to moments of interiority and reflection.
While the plot of PRISCILLA is not much to write home about, the rest of Mercury’s ensemble match West’s energy when delivering the hits. Heather J. Beck, Lydie Burke, and Jessica Brooke Seals are dynamite as the show’s three Divas. Beck, Burke and Seals belt out hit after hit at key moments in the show. They often take to the stage in Robert Kuhn’s glittering, sequined costumes to deliver their powerhouse vocals, but in other moments, they cleverly sing backstage while Mitzi, Bernadette, and Felicia lip sync as part of their acts. Houghton gives a heartfelt and winsome performance as Tick/Mitzi; even if Tick’s main narrative doesn’t totally make sense on paper, Houghton gives the role emotional integrity. Shaun White is a veritable scene stealer as Adam/Felicia; he has an incredibly dynamic and fun presence, and he makes himself quite the compelling performer to watch. His belting capabilities are also right up there with the Divas, particularly when he tears into Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.”
To quote another Donna Summer’s song, the ensemble for PRISCILLA also works hard for the money. The ensemble members elegantly navigate numerous quick changes, dozens of character tracks, and fantastic harmonies on the full company numbers. This is an ensemble that’s truly working together to provide stage magic. The ensemble also nails all the set and costume changes; while Mercury’s stage is not large, set designer Jonathan Berg-Einhorn found a charming and appealing way to represent the show’s titular pink bus on stage. Priscilla herself becomes a character in the piece, and the design for the bus is substantial enough to live up to the show’s name.
When PRISCILLA digs into the hits, that’s when the show really shines. The Divas set the stage by opening with “It’s Raining Men.” And while PRISCILLA is relatively light on plot, Elliot and Scott’s book does skillfully transition between scenes and songs. The show’s inventive use of Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park” is a particularly compelling example of what I like to call “book writers having fun,” and the number becomes a magnificent acting showpiece for Houghton.
If you’re looking for a fun romp of a musical that celebrates love, acceptance, and some iconic pop hits, Mercury’s PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT delivers.
PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT plays Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport, through September 11, 2022. Tickets are $39-$85. Visit Mercurytheaterchicago.com.
Photo Credit: Brett Beiner