By Barry Reszel
If all that glitters really is not gold, don’t tell the good folks at Pride Films and Plays, whose Chicago premiere production of 2011’s Tony-winning Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a bawdy hoot for ladies, gentlemen and those who have yet to make up their minds.
Co-Directors David Zak and Derek Van Barham, with a strong assist from Jon Martinez‘s magnificent choreography, lovingly guide this musical tale of a most unlikely trek through the Australian desert with a little guts and a lot of glitter.
Based on a 1994 cult film classic, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the jukebox musical featuring pop tunes mostly from the ’80s tells the story of two drag queens (Tick/Mitzi and Adam/Felicia) and a transgender woman (Bernadette) from Sydney who contract to perform a drag show at a resort in Alice Springs, a resort town in the remote Australian desert. As they trek aboard their lavender bus, Priscilla, the three encounter strange characters and incidents of homophobia, support and mechanical difficulties while their relationships with one another grow. A full synopsis may be read here.
Chicago celebrity actress Honey West lovingly stars as Bernadette, showcasing a graceful maternal instinct along with her formidable vocal chops. Her foil and ultimate friend, Adam/Felicia, is played by the flamboyant Luke Meierdiercks, who milks ever last laugh out of the snark of his character.
And to this reviewer, the brightest star of the leading trio shines with the performance of Jordan Phelps. Seen recently in Theo Ubique’s stunning Fly By Night, Phelps again shows off his triple threat capabilities in this, his fourth PFP production. Seeming equally comfortable donning Brooks Brothers or L’eggs, Phelps takes on the emotional burden of the story while featuring his gorgeously expressive vocals and seamless dance ability.
The surrounding ensemble is tight and generally precise, nowhere better shown than in their rousing rendition of John Denver‘s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” to kick off Act 2. Deserving particular adulation are the three Divas (Tuesdai B. Perry, Rebecca Coleman and Jill Sesso) who form a rainbow-haired Greek chorus and shine as a trio and individually.
PFP’s backstage genius parallels their onstage talent. In particular, Jeremy Hollis’ two-story set provides visual depth; John Nasca’s stunning costumes allow no feather, sequin or bead to feel left out; G. Max Maxin’s clear, stunning video design is a limited budget production’s best friend; and Musical Director Robert Ollis‘ five-person band fills the new Pride Arts Center with the richly nostalgic songbook including “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Venus,” “I Will Survive,” “Shake Your Groove Thing,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and more.
Compared to contemporary drag-centered musicals La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots, Priscilla is more overtly sexual and comedic. But at its core, it’s still a story of friendship with a happy ending to a long journey that proclaims, “We Belong.”
Pride Films and Plays presents, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” through February 12 at the Pride Arts Center—The Broadway, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.