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Vaudeville is Back in Chicago Theaters

Four fall shows tackle the ’20s art form.

George Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky in Funnyman   Photo: Courtesy of Joe Mazza

Vaudeville is having a Chicago theater moment. Browse the listings and you’ll find at least half a dozen shows featuring hoofers, magicians, and musical acts opening this fall. Theater companies are recreating history and embellishing established tales. “It’s been resurging for a while,” says Jenn Kincaid, the founder of Uptown Underground, a 1920s-themed adult nightclub that targets audiences hungry for “retrotainment.”

Kincaid also has another theory: The virality of late night TV clips. "Before radio, vaudeville was the place where you could reach the masses and talk about current events and politics,” she says. “That’s what late night TV is today. And when entertainers become as dominant as Jon Stewart or Jimmy Fallon, it’s inevitable they’ll influence other artists.”

Here are four radically different theater productions that spotlight the rise and return of vaudeville:

Side Show

The 1997 musical tells the story of the two highest paid performers in 1930s vaudeville, real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. “They were making $5,000 a week,” says Weber. “That’s a fair amount now. Think of what it was in the 1920s.” The Hilton sisters played clarinets, sang, and (billed as “The Dance Maniacs") did a ballroom number with newcomer Bob Hope during their career. “You still see vaudeville in shows like Cirque de Soleil,” Weber says, “But with Side Show, we try to recreate it as it was.”

Through 10/25. Porchlight Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. porchlightmusictheatre.org

Direct from Death Row (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow)

The magician with the vanishing scarves is a crowd pleaser. The justice system that makes entire lives vanish with similarly flippant ease? That’s horrifying. Playwrights Mark Stein and Harley White Jr. use magic, tap, comedy, and masks to depict the true story of nine black men wrongly convicted of rape. “The vaudeville elements in the show, especially the comedy, stress the outrageousness of the injustice,” says director Michael Menendian. “Without the vaudeville, the show would be more like a lecture. Plus, the story is so bleak, the tapping and comic bits make it easier to take, without diluting the tragedy.”

Through 11/14. Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark. raventheatre.com

Funnyman

Aging entertainer Chick Sherman (George Wendt) tries to jump-start a career that’s flailing during the rise of television. The role calls to mind Burt Lahr—a vaudeville headliner who turned to Waiting to Godot as his star dimmed in the 1950s. Wendt and co-star Tim Kazurinsky have a comic rapport that speaks to the late, great vaudevillians Abbott and Costello. In Funnyman, they use that connection to explore the nature of what makes something funny to begin with.

Through 10/18. Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie. northlight.org

The Tempest

Directors Aaron Posner and Raymond Teller (of Penn and Teller) turn desert-island king Prospero (Larry Yando) into a magician outfitted in a tux of Edwardian–era elegance. His slave Ariel (Nate Dendy) performs card tricks throughout the production, demonstrating his own unreliability in a very tangible way. “If the story was removed, The Tempest would be a vaudeville show,” says League of Chicago Theatres Executive director Deb Clapp.

Through 11/8. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. 800 E. Grand Ave. chicagoshakes.com

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