Jill, Tuesdai and Rebecca L-R: Jill Sesso, Tuesdai B. Perry, Rebecca Coleman. All photos by Paul Goyette.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was a huge hit on Broadway, running 526 performances and winning several awards. While a nationwide tour followed, including a stop in Chicago, the production which opened this January at the Pride Arts Center is the first time a local company has produced this kicky jukebox musical comedy. Priscilla adheres very closely to its source material taking large portions of the screenplay and opening them up with songs either from the film or that reflect the story's sensibilities. The resulting tunestack is a bit schizophrenic, but fun all the same, with disco hits like "It's Raining Men" alongside 80s pop like "Venus." Someone quite literally leaves a slice of cake out in the rain which provides a tongue in cheek dance number set to the classic and classically awful song "MacArthur Park." There's a genuine showtune, "A Fine Romance," in there as well, and queer music icons The Pet Shop Boys, Cyndi Lauper, and Kylie Minogue are represented. There's even an aria, "Sempre Libera," sung by one of the greek chorus-style Divas, while one of the main characters lip-synchs around the stage atop the titular bus while a train of gold lamé flows (read: pushed around by ensemble members) behind him. Priscilla might have been served better by having some original songs, my personal preference with musicals, but overall the song selection is memorable and provides the right emotions when needed. I didn't see the Broadway production so I can't compare, but this production brought some great voices to elevate the songs and tie them to character.
"Go West" L-R: Averis I. Anderson, Matthew Huston, Maiko Terazawa, Parker Guidry, John Cardone, Honey West, Luke Meierdiercks, Jordan Phelps, Aaron C. Reynolds, Roy Samra, Erin Renee Baumrucker, Britt-Marie Sivertsen
From the start it is apparent that Priscilla was meant for a theater that is larger than the Pride Center's 85-seat theater, called The Broadway. This could be seen as a setback or a strength, and while there are times where the performances and staging feel like they could use some room the intimacy and "let's put on a show" immediacy works in the production's favor. The performers are supported by a tiny band which includes two keyboards, an electric bass, trumpet, flugelhorn, and percussion. Much like the lo-fi approach to sets and costumes, the music direction has a sense of DIY pride that lends to the overall charm of the presentation. The way the sets mingle with the old architecture of the space has a magical quality. The producers, Pride Films and Plays, have claimed and repurposed this space to electric effect. I look forward to seeing productions there in the future and witness how they reinvent it.
The performances are witty and warm all around with an emotional reality at their center. While the story follows the main three characters, Tick/Mitzi (Jordan Phelps), Bernadette (Chicago icon Honey West), and Adam/Felicia (Luke Mierdiercks), there are many supporting roles that shine as well as the ensemble chorus. Especially moving is the understated performance of John Cardone, who plays Bernadette's unexpected love interest Bob. They both convincingly win each other, and bond as they realize Bob was an admirer of Bernadette's back when she performed in a drag revue in Sydney called Les Girls. It's a fine romance indeed. Honey West delivers a lovely emotional arc to her character, is wickedly funny, and sings beautifully. It is great to see this legend of Chicago's stage perform live. Phelp's Tick/Mitzi is a strong core to the cast and also has a strong voice. Mierdiercks's Adam/Felicia is a standout performance providing a wide range of emotion while dancing and singing admirably. In this small production of a huge musical it is also fun to see the supporting ensemble emerge at points to perform some small roles. Everyone gets a chance to shine. The Australian accents, supported by dialect coach Lindsay Barlett, are quite convincing!
If you're a fan of the film, or just want a queer-affirming evening of musical theater this is a highly recommended production. I felt invigorated after seeing this lovely story of friends supporting each other, overcoming obstacles, confronting fears, and finding a journey towards happiness together. Jon Martinez's choreography is just right, and I feel fortunate to see the versatility of his work over the last few years as he emerges as one of Chicago's leading choreographers. I was disappointed in his Tonya & Nancy: A Rock Opera, but he does not disappoint here. His staging for "Color My World," where the ensemble defiantly paints the bus pink, is a highlight of the evening with campy paint themed showgirl outfits and kinetic dance moves. The costumes by John Nasca also standout in their invention repurposing objects and serving glamour reminiscent of the Oscar winning costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner.
"Color My World" Honey West and L-R: Maiko, etc. L-R: Maiko Terazawa, Honey West, Britt-Marie Sivertsen, Erin Renee Baumrucker
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is at Pride Films and Plays' Pride Arts Center—The Broadway at 4139 N. Broadway and has been extended to March 12, 2017. Find tickets here. Discounts are available for students and seniors.