Mercury Theater on Southport is back

“The first few months on the job for Mercury Theater Chicago artistic director Christopher Chase Carter have been, in his words, “a reality check.”

Carter was announced as the company’s artistic leader in April, less than a year after the Mercury on the Southport Corridor, headed by executive director L. Walter Stearns and executive producer Eugene Dizon, announced that it was closing down for good. The theater, with a 280-seat mainstage, had been known for homegrown productions of musicals such as “Avenue Q” and “Spamalot,” and in 2018 had added the 80-seat Venus cabaret space.

When it closed, owners Stearns and Dizon cited the financial impact of the pandemic. The staff was laid off and the building offered up for sale. But a few months later, Stearns was able to utilize public funding for arts venues, like the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, to keep the building and revive it by hiring Carter as its new artistic director.

Now, as the Mercury steps into rehearsals for its first production back, Carter is carrying the responsibility of leading the theater through, and eventually out of, the pandemic and into a new vision for programming.

“I came in ready to create magic and dance and pick shows and build this new vision and this new energy within the company,” said Carter. He wants the Mercury to grow to “a place where we’re a gem of musical theater in the country.”

It’s an excitement that Carter had to temper a bit, with the ongoing pandemic still leaving many unknowns. But the Mercury’s recently announced season plans for its mainstage and Venus cabaret offer a glimpse into Carter’s full vision for the future of the company.

“We have the potential to be America’s Mercury Theater, that planet that everybody should visit,” said Carter, adding that creating that name and building a theater that reflects Chicago and Chicagoans go hand in hand.

The Mercury Theater management team includes (from left) managing director Shane Murray-Corcoran, cabaret director Honey West and artistic director Christopher Chase Carter. The theater is back with a new season.
The Mercury Theater management team includes (from left) managing director Shane Murray-Corcoran, cabaret director Honey West and artistic director Christopher Chase Carter. The theater is back with a new season. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

The season will include the musical adaptation of “Sister Act” that will feature choreography from Carter, a celebration of singers like Whitney Houston and Diana Ross in “Women of Soul,” and the Stearns-directed stage adaptation of “Clue.” Additionally, the theater will finally be able to mount its production of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” which was nearing technical rehearsals when the pandemic forced its shutdown.

“For those audience members coming back, it’s still going to be the same great Mercury that they know, if not even better,” said Shane Murray-Corcoran, who has worked with the theater in a smaller capacity before being elevated to its new managing director. “We have programming coming out of our ears. We have much more diverse programming.”

Murray-Corcoran acknowledged that it’s been difficult for the company to get the word out that they are, in fact, not closed for good. But the need for outreach has given the company the opportunity for additional engagement, including touching base with local schools in the hopes of adding youth programming to the company’s offerings in the future.

“We want to give back,” said Murray-Corcoran. “It’s very important to engage with the community around us. Not just the theater community, but the neighborhoods and wider community saying, ‘Hey, we’re a part of this community. Let’s all work together. Let’s inspire the next generation of theater-makers, of artists, of writers, of directors, of whatever it is. We really just want to open our doors and just say, ‘Come on in.’”

Both Carter and Murray-Corcoran voiced excitement for the potential for new collaborations and the chance to bring new audiences and artists into Mercury, especially through the company’s revamped plans for its Venus Cabaret Theater. What once was a performance space that was to stage “Priscilla” pre-pandemic will now become a true variety cabaret space led by cabaret director Honey West.

Carter hopes this space can become a place for solo artists and cabaret acts to perform and begin to cultivate a following in the city. As a performer who has been on the cabaret circuit since the ‘90s, West looks to become that guiding hand for other performers in the city.

With the Venus Cabaret, the company will utilize nights that are typically inactive for other theaters, Sunday through Tuesday nights, for a series of programming called the Dark Night Series. These nights will feature a variety of programming including open mics with a live pianist, karaoke, comedy, mentalists, magicians and even ballet in addition to typical cabaret performances. The cabaret season kicked off at the beginning of October and continues Oct. 24 with “Sibling Revelry,” a musical night hosted by “almost twin siblings” Evan and Will Wilhelm, celebrating their birthdays.

Earlier this year, Carter said he hoped to model this space after New York’s famed 54 Below, and when West was considering the venue’s programming, she said she caught herself leaning toward prioritizing high caliber talent to occupy the space. But then, she said, she realized that it wasn’t her place to judge whose act deserves stage time. Instead she wanted the space to be one for artists of all experience levels to come in and grow.

“It’s daunting to do a cabaret show solo if it’s your first time,” said West. “What I wanted to create is a series of spotlights and showcases.”

So part of the cabaret’s plans moving forward, West said, is to allow artists to come to open mic nights to try out material and build their repertoire. In West’s plans, an artist can perhaps grow from an open mic performer, to a spotlight of a few songs, to a longer showcase, and then a full cabaret act.

Additionally, Carter said he’d like to see the Mercury expanding those efforts to nurture early career artists, including producing new works and working directly with playwrights. But first, he cautioned, the company needs to make sure they’re stable enough to responsibly take on these efforts that matter the most to him.

“There’s a true intention right now to make everybody feel welcome and let everybody know that we are here for the community,” said Carter.

The 2021 season at the Mercury Theater includes:

“Sister Act” (Nov. 5 to Jan. 9, 2022): Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellne and Douglas Carter Beane, choreographed by Christopher Chase Carter, music direction by Diana Lawrence and directed by Reneisha Jenkins. Disco diva Deloris Van Cartier is put in protective custody in a convent, where her disco moves and singing talent breathes new life into the church and community. Starring Alexis J. Roston and Hollis Resnik.

“Women of Soul” (Jan. 27 to March 12, 2022): Written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks. This concert celebrates some of the most powerful women of soul including Whitney Houston, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson and Janis Joplin, recognizing the struggles and triumphs they went through to reach the pinnacle of their success.

“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (June 10 to Aug. 7, 2022): Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, music direction by executive producer Eugene Dizon and directed and choreographed by artistic director Christopher Chase Carter. Honey West will star in this adventure of a Sydney-based performing trio who take their show to the middle of the Australian Outback.

“Clue on Stage” (Aug. 26 to Oct. 30, 2022): Adapted from the screenplay by Jonathan Lynn and Sandy Rustin, additional materials by Hunter Foster and Eric Price and directed by executive producer Walter Stearns. Based on the 1985 movie, which was inspired by the Hasbro board game, this farce-meets-murder mystery sees six guests gather for an unusual dinner party where murder and blackmail are on the menu.

The Mercury Theater Chicago (3745 N. Southport Ave.) requires all audience members to provide proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID-19 PCR test from the last 72 hours, or a negative COVID-19 antigen from the last 6 hours. Masks are required in the theater; more at www.mercurytheaterchicago.com.

[Chicago Tribune]

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