Drag Disco Divas on tour: a thoroughly winning “Priscilla”

Photo by Brett Beiner

I only have vague memories of the film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, though I know I enjoyed it and have long wanted to find it streaming. (I’m sure it’s there somewhere.) What I did recall was three drag queens on a bus named Priscilla driving around Australia and a lot of disco songs, and that pretty much sums up the plot of the 2008 stage musical version now being given an energetic, entertaining, and enthusiastic production at the Mercury Theater that is made even better by gleefully over-the-top costume and wig design that, I predict, will earn another Jeff nomination for both Robert (Bob) Kuhn and Keith Ryan. (Ryan, whose wigs are so colorful, huge, and extravagant that they sometimes seem to defy the laws of physics, calls this show “a dream come true,” and it’s easy to see why.

The musical’s plot, which basically serves as a device to allow for as much music, dancing, and outrageous costuming as you can squeeze into two hours of showtime, involved a Sydney drag queen named Mitzi Mitosis (Josh Houghton) who recruits two friends to take a trip to see the son he has not seen since the days six years ago when he was Tick. He entices these friends, a transgender performer named Bernadette (the always enjoyable Honey West) and a younger, chaotically risk-taking colleague named Felicia or Adam (Shaun White) by getting them booked for shows in a casino near their destination. (He doesn’t tell them about the son, instead saying the trip is a favor to his wife.)

The three performers buy what one of them calls “a budget Barbie campervan” (rendered here in four movable parts by Jonathan Berg-Einhorn) and begin their road trip to Alice Springs, a trip of almost 3000 km. Along the way, the bus, which by now has been painted lavender and christened (yup) Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, predictably breaks down, and they are forced to stay a couple of days in a small town where they meet Bob (Michael Kingston until 8/14, Jason Richards after that), a mechanic who volunteers to fix the bus. Bob also provides a love interest for Bernadette, whose husband died just before the trip.

The music here is not all disco, though a lot of it is. Our three travelers, along with a fantasy trio referred to as “the Divas” (Heather J. Beck, Lydia Burke, and Jessica Brooke Seals), perform expected disco tracks like “I Will Survive,” “It’s Raining Men,” “Shake Your Groove Thing,” and “Hot Stuff,” but there is still plenty of room for the unexpected. White gives an absolutely unforgettable performance lip-synching “Sempre Libre” from La Traviata that you won’t know you needed until you see it. The companions deliver thoughtful and reflective versions of “True Colors” and “We Belong.” There is a moment when someone actually leaves a cake out in the rain that inspires a glorious rendition of “MacArthur Park.” And somehow we are even treated to a totally fun “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” at a bar in the town where they break down. And it must be said that everyone in this cast has a wonderful voice and can dance up a storm. (Director Christopher Chase Carter, who is responsible for all of this working so well, also acts as the choreographer.)

That the production team includes a fight choreographer (Allison Dornheggen) is a clue that not everything goes smoothly on this trip, as if the defacing of the bus with gay-bashing obscenities before they even leave had not clued us in from the start. There is a more physical assault in the second act, so be warned that this play, which celebrates LGBTQIA+ people, does contain some dangerously homophobic moments before it can reunite Tick with his son Benji (Gabriel Solis) for the genuinely warm and lovely “Always on My Mind.”

This is the kind of show that absolutely guarantees a nostalgically great time. Every element meshes beautifully (though someone probably ought to tell Berg-Einhorn that most 6-8-year-olds have long outgrown “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish”). Otherwise, though, it’s a show designed for such bonzer fun that you’ll defo be telling people about it the next day at brekkie or over the barbie.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert is playing at Mercury Theater through Sep. 11.

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