REVIEW: A Magical PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT at Mercury Theater Chicago

Thie heartfelt, rainbow-filled burst of sunshine runs through Sept. 11

By: Jul. 29, 2022
REVIEW: A Magical PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT at Mercury Theater Chicago

Mercury Theater Chicago's PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT: THE MUSICAL is a production that perhaps no one thought we needed.

But thank the theater gods it is the production we got! Drop whatever you are doing and book tickets to see this.

The show is a heartfelt, rainbow-filled burst of sunshine that succeeds in taking your mind of the troubles of the world like the best musicals can only do.

Based on the Oscar-winning 1994 film "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert", the show follows the adventures of a trio of performers consisting of Tick/Mitzi (Josh Houghton), Adam/Felicia (Shaun White) and Bernadette (Honey West) as they traverse from Sidney to Alice Springs in a beat-up old bus they nicknamed Priscilla.

As Tick/Mitzi, Josh Houghton brings some much needed heart to the jukebox musical that features more than 20 disco and dance club hits. His Mitzi has been harboring a secret from her chosen family; namely that Tick is not only married to a woman (Brittany D. Parker as Marion), but he also has a child (Gabriel Solis as Benji) that lives with Marion in Alice Springs.

Houghton excels at making us feels his internal conflict: his Tick worries how his son will feel about not only having a gay dad, but a drag queen performer to boot. His Mitzi wonders how supportive his found queer family will take to the news that he is married -but still very much gay-and has a child.

His performance is bookended by Burt Bacharach and Hal David's classic "I Say a Little Prayer" with the Elvis Presley hit "Always On My Mind" (written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson Thompson). It's through both songs that Houghton really shines. Sorry, regret and hope are all on display there.

And his over-the-top performance of the Donna Summer classic "MacArthur Park" (by Jimmy Webb) which consists of him deftly performing while carrying a cake with sweet, green icing flowing down alongside the ensemble will definitely have you grinning from ear to ear. The number as choreographed by Christopher Chase Carter (who also directs the production) very much takes on a vibe of "Be Our Guest" that was sorely lacking from prior productions I have seen of this show.

REVIEW: A Magical PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT at Mercury Theater Chicago As Adam/Felicia, White is pitch-perfect as the impulsive, young performer with a big heart and even bigger mouth. His Felicia could easily slay on RuPaul's Drag Race lip Syncing for her life if White's animated performance of "Sempre Libre" (from Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata") is any indication.

As a longtime fan of the incomparable Honey West (a Chicago legend if ever there was one), it feels far too limiting of her talent to say this was a role she was born to play and yet it is hard for me to see anyone doing any more justice to the role of the transgender former showgirl Bernadette than West. In both "Don't Leave Me This Way" and "True Colors," her Bernadette shows signs of being both world-weary and yet strong simply because she has persevered.

And the anger she taps into during "Hot Stuff" when her Bernadette finally confronts a mob of queer-bashing homophobes -suffice to say you would never want to be on the receiving end when her Bernadette or West herself is wielding a six-inch stiletto as a weapon.

REVIEW: A Magical PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT at Mercury Theater Chicago The show also features a Greek chorus trio (The Divas) and each of them lives up to the name diva. Jessica Brooke Seals' manages both the deep lower notes of "It's Raining Men" along with the Soprano trills required of anyone singing dance club hits. Lydia Burke brings joyous exuberance and a boffo voice to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" that I don't think Cyndi Lauper could sing it any better. Heather J. Beck (as our final diva) isn't really given a standout moment, but she still manages to shine as the third in this "Supreme" trio. And much like that Motown group, this group really is the sum of all of its hard working parts.

Ensemble members Marcus Jackson, Matthew Weidenbener and John Cardone also deserve praise for the chameleon-like way they play a number of other roles.

As a young Bernadette, Weidnebener is particularly effective in giving us a glimpse of Bernadette's star power in her youth in "A Fine Romance."

Cardone is always able to pull a dozen or so characters out of his actor well and make them all feel authentic regardless of the amount of time they appear on stage. He is the hardest working ensemble actor in Chicago and he is working overtime here.

Jackson is great as the backwater country boy in (what else) "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy" and also makes a cute, glam, boxing kangaroo (costume by Robert Kuhn; apologies to Kuhn in advance if I co-opt this clever look come Halloween).

The scenic and property design by Jonathan Berg-Einhorn makes good use of every square inch of the Mercury's intimate stage with it easily morphing from desert Outback, Sydney drag nightclub, dingy saloon and posh casino. In particular, his design of the bus was especially clever.

In addition to the kangaroo costume, Kunh's designs along with wigs by Keith Ryan, conjure up over the top drag showgirls and divas along side working class Outback denizens.

With everything going on in the world (gay rights and gay marriage again at risk of being taken away with just a single Supreme Court decision and all), perhaps it is just the right time for us to venture again into the Outback on a journey of love and acceptance.

Director Christopher Chase Carter has managed to find the soul of "Priscilla" and put it on stage. I do not say this lightly as someone who has seen some seven productions of the show (including the first National Tour). This show runs smoothly along with its heart on its sleeve, always entertaining us as it moves us to both laughs and tears. If there is a better production of this show, I haven't seen it.

Like its trio of main characters, this PRISCILLA urges us to don our best frocks and shout from the highest, rocky mountaintops "We Belong."

And in a weary world, sometimes just being remind of that is enough.

PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT runs through Sept. 11 at the Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Soutport. Tickets $39-$85.

All photos by Brett Beiner Photographer, courtesy of the production


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