Last spring when “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” premiered on Thalian Hall’s stage, as produced by Opera House Theatre Company, with director Ray Kennedy at the helm, rave reviews poured in for its colorful, upbeat and down-right fun entertainment. But at its heart is a sentimentality that crosses time and is especially relevant today, in 2018, as the fight for equal rights among the LGBTQIA community still battles on worldwide.
When encore interviewed one of its leads, Jeff Phillips, who plays transgender Bernadette Basinger, Phillips told encore, “We have to reach back and help others up the mountains and, because we are battle-tested, we have to be willing to pick up the sword again to fight for those who may not have the means to do so themselves.” The musical, based on the 1994 Aussie film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” shows audiences how, 24 years after its debut, its relevance has never been truer. Underneath all the bickering of values, morals, religion, etc., we all bleed red. Opera House has reprised the musical for its new year run before kicking off 2018’s full season. Audiences have one more weekend to put it at the top of their must-see list.
At the onset of the show, we meet Tick, a.k.a. Mitzi Mitosis (Jason Aycock), a drag performer in Sydney, AU, who’s facing turmoil of living his truth. He needs to get out of town for a few weeks and head across the Outback to Alice Springs, where his ex-wife and son live, to reconcile a past life with his current one: living as a gay man who loves to lip-sing in drag with puppets. He reaches out to his old friend, Bernadette, who is experiencing the death of her husband, and a feisty and flamboyant younger performer, Adam, a.k.a. Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Blaine Mowrer), to make the trek. The end result will land them a show at Tick’s ex-wife’s cabaret club. With a little convincing between the bickering odd couple—old-school Les Girl Bernadette, who envies the young and sprightly athletic performing, if not very mouthy, Felicia—they score an old bus, Priscilla. They head out into the night on a journey that eventually enriches their souls, even through traumatic turmoil and downright bigotry.
Though the storyline is shrouded in emotional nostalgia, it’s not without a heft of enlivenment from the impressive and uplifting choreography of Kennedy and Aycock, as well as music (scored by Stephen “Spud” Murphy with local music supervision by
Lorene Walsh Timothy Maddocks and her fantastic 9-piece orchestra). It takes audiences through the disco era into 80’s pop that will undoubtedly make every audience member tap a toe or bob a head. Immediately the colorful and splashy costuming presents buckets full of eye candy as Terrill Williams sashays in sequins, from his eyelashes to his toes, in Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Though the song didn’t really hit the high-notes as it should have, The Harvey women—Juli and Selina—truly did with every costume design. I found myself enthralled by elaborate feather headdresses, tulle for miles and even flip-flops.
Delivering spunk and flamboyancy at every turn is the stunning Mowrer. His young, acerbic tongue as Felicia turns out so many quips it requires full attention, else a laugh will be missed. He is the foil to Bernadette’s regal composure: He kicks higher, talks louder, and stirs the pot to a boil when it only needs to simmer. Mowrer embodies the up-and-comer whose talent will intimidate any performer, young or old. Mowrer is raw talent, plain and simple, with every dance move, with every entrance and exit, with every song. He owns the stage but still plays it cool enough to remind folks youth has a lot to learn from their elders—like when to pick their battles and how showing respect goes a long way.
Phillips’ Bernadette is perfect as the pining old-school star who wishes for her once-perfect skin, a thinner physique and the unabashed confidence of youth. Yet, her careful care toward her road warriors, despite their spats, paints her a nurturing mother hen who still has a lot of love and talent to give back to the world at large. Phillips’ amazing vocals reverberate Thalian during the powerful harmonizing of “I’m Every Woman” (also the most fun costuming of the night!). His ease of movement in every quippy battle with Mowrer is a hoot.
Aycock brings the tears in the show when the mashup of two of my favorite songs, “Say a Little Prayer” and “Always on My Mind,” sets the context of a father trying to connect with his long-lost son. I wasn’t prepared to cry during “Priscilla,” so attention softies: Come armed with a tissue. Aycock’s soft anxiety emulates what so many in our world are going through in trying to be true to themselves but being afraid to live out their realities from repercussions. In the show, being bullied and beat up or heckled makes its way into many scenes as a stark reminder folks across the world still hold judgement and downright hate for folks unlike themselves. It’s tough to watch. But the show does tilt more toward humor, making the “message” sometimes feel like an afterthought.
Though the three leads carry the story, it isn’t always without a few awkward pacing moments and sound problems, mainly with Aycock’s mic. The first few acts of the show seem a bit slow but pick up steam as the incredible ensemble and stunning vocalist divas, who act like a Greek chorus (Joy Ducree Gregory, Michelle Braxton and Elisa Eklof Smith), take the stage. They really carry the show into another realm of enjoyment—especially Sarah Holcombe’s scene as a mullet-sporting redneck Aussie, Shirley. Her country rendition of “Last Dance” (originally by disco queen Donna Summer) remained one of the top moments of the night. Lauren Maasch’s operatic solo with Mowrer’s mimicry in Thalian’s box seats also will stay with audiences, as will Stephanie Tucker’s mind-blowing if not somewhat salacious performance in “Pop Musik.” (I’ll never look at ping-poing balls the same.)
The set design by Terry Collins and lighting by Dallas Lafon bring the whole shebang together with funky, bright designs and colors that moved fluidly. The latter especially impacts during Cyndi Lauper’s gay rights anthem “True Colors”—which really hits home the show’s intent: “So don’t be afraid to let them show/Your true colors/True colors are beautiful/Like a rainbow.”
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Jan. 18-21, 8 p.m. or 3 p.m., Sundays
Tickets: $32 • www.thalianhall.org
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
encore regrets mistakenly attributing music direction to Lorene Walsh in the print version.