Authors: Jason Paul Smith and Roy Freeman
At: The Berger Park Coach House Theater, 6205 N. Sheridan Rd. Tickets: threecatproductions.com or 312-970-9840; $15-25. Runs through: Sept. 8
With their world premiere production of Diamond Lil And The Pansy Craze, Three Cat Productions aims to bring us a deep-dive into Chicago's queer history, all while giving subversive interpretations of wholesome songs of the 1930's. Creator/directors Jason Paul Smith and Roy Freeman have their hearts in the right place for this solid concept, but fall short of building a narrative around a collision of characters and songs.
In the early 1930s, Chicago clubs tailored to gay men, drag performers, and anyone on the queer spectrum toying with their gender expression began sprouting up. One such club was Diamond Lil's, and in this revue, we spend a fictional evening at that Rush street cabaret, being serenaded by Diamond Lil ( Michael Hampton ) herself, among other notables. Blues performer Bessie Jackson ( Carolyn Nelson ) teases her very open butchness, and Crane Gilbert ( Sam Bowling ) tells wild tales of run-ins with the police. A cast of socialites and club owners sing a parade of queer anthems and popular standards.
An engaging revue presents songs we know in a new perspective, weaving a narrative from unrelated numbers to build a cohesive story. Without a through-line or compelling characters, even the most dynamic songs can fall flat. Diamond Lil and the Pansy Craze has an amazing premise and solid performers, but feels threadbare as it unfolds. It needs an event or single person to be it's centerpiece, and it has the ideal historic figure to do the trick: club owner Diamond Lil. Unfortunately, the history they center on feels unfocused, like an afterthought; and the majority of the music, with no story function, can feel like inconsequential set dressing.
However, songs like "Alice Blue Gown", and "BD Women Blues" are time capsules of the grand, short-lived tradition of subversive comedy songs that were staples of places like Diamond Lil's. These numbers are racy and speak to the dangers of hiding in plain sight, especially as underground clubs fell out of favor with the authorities.
While the ensemble is musically polished and quite a lot of fun onstage and off, interacting with bar patrons, there were stand-outs who truly brought their characters to life. Sam Bowling brings us a coy and demure "He's So Unusual" as Crane Gilbert, a Chicago society gadfly who made the papers for his dapper dress sense. Carolyn Nelson aims for the rafters with powerful blues numbers as Bessie Jackson, a performer unapologetic for the strength of her masculine energy. And, as Diamond Lil, Michael Hampton does wonders with spoken word numbers like "She's My Most Intimate Friend" that invite you to listen close for naughty jokes.
Trade a few dusty old standards for a bit more history, and Three Cat Productions can transform this revue into a real barn-burner.