Honey West sweetens Venus cabaret – Times Square Chronicles
As our theaters come back to life, great attention has been paid to the larger venues. But at the other end of the spectrum, smaller theaters are also struggling to resume operations. The most intimate performance space of all, the cabaret theater, is also resurfacing, offering performers a new place to be as personal as possible with their audiences.
In the New York cabaret, we have Don’t Tell Mama’s. In LA, it has long been the Gardenia Club. In my hometown of Chicago, the Piano Bar and Cabaret in Davenport is planning to reopen. But there’s a newcomer to town about to add to the cabaret fun: the Venus Cabaret at the Mercury Theater.
The 280-seat Mercury Theater is a gem on Chicago’s North Side, located in
Chicago’s hip Lakeview community, not far from Wrigley Field. It began life as a silent film Nickelodeon in 1912 before being turned into the for-profit Mercury Theater in 1994 by producer Michael Cullen. It was purchased in 2010 by producer-director Walter Stearns and her husband / music director Eugene Dizon, now co-executive producers of the resort. Before that, they had built Chicago’s excellent, non-profit Porchlight Music Theater from a small, non-union start-up to a large local institution.
The Mercury closed during the pandemic and plans were underway for its sale. With Chicago losing another for-profit theater complex, the Royal George Theater, to condo developers, it would have dealt a further blow to Chicago’s commercial theater scene. But the dedication and hard work of the Mercury Theater team also allowed them to reopen.
Their first step forward was the appointment of a new African-American artistic director, Christopher Chase Carter, for the theater. Now, Carter has brought in one of Chicago’s most iconic cabaret performers, Honey West, as the official cabaret manager, to run the new Venus Cabaret, in the adjacent converted restaurant space.
Ms. West is a multi-award-winning transgender artist who proudly admits having had her “second puberty” at age 40. She first appeared on the Chicago cabaret scene in 1991 with her show “A Taste of Honey”. She won two After Dark Awards as Outstanding Chicago Cabaret Artist, among other honors. But even though she does refer to herself on occasion, I’ve never thought of her as anything other than one of the most talented, charismatic women in all cabaret scenes.
The Venus Cabaret will only officially open in September. But on July 10 and 11, a steady stream of talented Chicago artists performed on a free “open house” to introduce the venue, including Ms. West, to their audiences.
Despite my long history in Chicago, this was the first time I saw Ms. West in her 30-year cabaret career in Chicago. I’m sorry now that I waited so long to catch it. I was fascinated with every second of the two sets she played.
Ms. West has the sly sensuality of Mae West, the nerve of Sophie Tucker, the debauchery of Belle Barth (about whom she played a one-woman show) and a warm, expressive and sharp singing voice of her own.
If the cabaret gets hit for anything, it’s because so many cabaret performers are more well-intentioned than well-trained. This is not the case with Mrs. West. Truly warm and joyfully withdrawn, she reigns in the room with her vocal talents and her big heart. As a great cabaret artist should, she frames her choice of material with stories from her life, which make us feel like friends in her living room. The video accompanying this article captures some of the highlights of the evening.
The Venus Cabaret itself is a spacious room, which avoids the overcrowded feeling of some other places, yet still remains perfectly private. Bartenders, who are on the sidelines like at Birdland Jazz Club, might make it a point not to shake drinks with ice during the quiet moments of the performance. But other than that, this place and the audience experience is lovely.
Most cabaret halls are limited to singers. But Ms. West has the ambition to turn things around, with comedy one night and novelty like belly dancers the other nights as well. It is difficult to predict whether or not the Chicago public will support such a variety of interests. But if anyone has what it takes to create a play like this, it’s Honey West and the team at Mercury Theater.
The Venus Cabaret at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Street, Chicago IL 60613