Long before the Viagra Triangle took root in the Gold Coast, 909 Rush Street was a haven for artists and audiences who celebrate life outside the gender binary. Jason Paul Smith and Roy A. Freeman’s jukebox journey through the history of the infamous Diamond Lil’s invokes the 1930s by echoing both the tawdry glamour of Cabaret and the optimistic sheen of 42nd Street. Shaped around more than 30 songs you have surely never heard, Diamond Lil (Michael Hampton, as shiny as the Chrysler Building in full flapper regalia) and his sparkly sextet—some in drag, some not—host a fabulous music-laden history lesson on Chicago’s Pansy Craze of the 1930s.
You can’t walk away from Diamond Lil without feeling at least a smidge more defiantly hopeful about the future than you did when you walked in. Such is the power of numbers like the lyrically whack, harmonically intricate, and bygawd bonkers “There Are Fairies in the Bottom of Our Garden,” which is akin to watching Ziegfeld Follies, only with lyrics written at an ayahuasca retreat. The show’s delights aren’t restricted to the all-hands-on-deck ensemble shebangs. wherein everyone sashays about like imps on absinthe at the Folies Bergère (there is a terrific cancan number, btw). On the awesome, growling “BD Women Blues,” Carolyn Nelson sounds like she’s got a choir of ancestors holding her up. “The Cabaret Boys” is a sly ode to chorus cuties. Orlando Shelly shows off some formidable clarinet chops on “Downhearted Blues.” There are off-kilter oddities as well, including a ditty about a child who likely pushed his sister down a well and another about a toxic case of poison ivy. After Chicago mayor Anton Cermak was assassinated in 1933, his successor, Edward J. Kelly, shut down Diamond Lil’s. In resurrecting her, Freeman and Smith have done us all a favor. v