In 1994, an Australian road comedy about three drag artists heading off in a beat-up tour bus across the Outback felt like a breath of fresh air in a cinematic landscape that tended to focus stories with “gay themes” on the tragedy of AIDS, and that still tended to view being trans as a punch line (when trans people weren’t being depicted as crazed psychotic killers, that is—thanks a bunch, The Silence of the Lambs). The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert became an international hit and subsequently formed the basis for the 2006 jukebox musical, Priscilla Queen of the Desert (book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott), which hit Broadway in 2011. (Bette Midler was one of the New York producers.)
Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Through 9/11: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM, Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport, 773-360-7365 mercurytheaterchicago.com, $39-$85
Mercury Theater Chicago was ready to open a production of Priscilla in their Venus Cabaret space in March 2020 when—well, you know. Now two-plus years later, they’re doing the show on their mainstage, in a production directed and choreographed by artistic director Christopher Chase Carter. In some ways, it couldn’t be more timely, given the hate crimes being increasingly directed at drag performers and the venues that welcome them, such as the attacks on Lake in the Hills’s UpRising Bakery and Café after they announced a family-friendly drag event. (Apparently the widespread popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race and other drag-friendly pop cultural artifacts hasn’t been enough to counter hateful stereotypes and the violence they encourage.)
But though the Mercury production is good-hearted and easy to enjoy, the show feels a little creaky around the edges, even with Chicago legend Honey West as Bernadette, a onetime drag star and now a transwoman who has been living quietly offstage with her younger husband—until his sudden death gives her a reason to escape grief by going on the road again.
West’s Bernadette joins Tick (stage name Mitzi), played by Josh Houghton, who is the architect of the trip. He fathered a son some years earlier, and his wife Marion (Brittany D. Parker) thinks it’s time for him to meet the boy. Oh, and she happens to be the manager of a casino in Alice Springs, so it can be a reunion/working vacation away from Sydney for Tick and Co. The third wheel on this wobbly bus is young and bitchy Adam (aka Felicia), played with appropriate over-the-top narcissism by Shaun White. (The character’s tendency to use ageist insults against Bernadette and deadname her feels pretty problematic today, though.)
The main problem is that the book feels like it’s dutifully crossing off plot points in order to race to the next song (which, thanks to the arrangements and orchestrations of Stephen “Spud” Murphy and music director Eugene Dizon, as well as sound designer Carl Wahlstrom, sound pretty good; the show uses all prerecorded music, which of course makes sense in the drag-club world). The three snipe and share secrets (though it takes a while for Tick to come clean about the real reason he wants to go to Alice Springs). But we don’t learn a lot more about them by the end than we knew at the beginning, and the time-honored tradition of the road comedy is that there is at least a smidgen of growth and revelation.
There are interludes that hint at the danger the three face as gender-nonconforming people. After one impromptu show in a bar, they come out to find “FUCK OFF FAGGOTS” emblazoned on Priscilla. “I thought they loved us,” Adam says. “Only until sunrise,” Tick wearily replies. It’s a near-perfect encapsulation of how mainstream audiences can cheer on drag on the screen, while trying to burn it out and drive it out at the local bookstore or bakery.
More disturbingly, Adam’s visit in drag to a bar in a mining town nearly ends in a gang rape, for which Tick seemingly blames him. If Adam has been traumatized by that violence, we don’t see it. It feels like a way to both acknowledge the existential threats people like Adam, Tick, and Bernadette face without really exploring them. There is also an interesting, but underdeveloped, debate between Adam and Bernadette about lip-synching as an art versus singing; Bernadette schools the younger performer on all that goes into creating the illusion.
But yes, this is a jukebox musical and perhaps it’s unfair to expect sociology alongside the sassy, sparkling production numbers. And those, thanks to Carter’s choreography and Bob Kuhn’s eye-candy costumes, along with wigs by Keith Ryan and lighting and digital media by G. “Max” Maxin IV, are sheer delight. The subplot involving West’s Bernadette and her new unlikely amour, mechanic Bob (Michael Kingston; Jason Richards takes over the role August 15), is sweet and heartwarming, though the depiction of his much younger Vietnamese wife, Cynthia (Ayana Strutz), also leans pretty heavily on sexualized stereotypes.
Among the supporting cast, Darren Patin’s Miss Understanding is a knockout, and longtime Chicago favorite John Cardone kills in a variety of roles. If you’re already a fan of the soundtrack (which packs in everything from “It’s Raining Men” to “I Will Survive” to John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” with a tender nod to classic Hollywood nostalgia in Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’s “A Fine Romance”), Priscilla will take you on a joyride.