Proud at Mary’s: A June Cabaret Review - The Gayest Show Around

On one of the first warm nights of the summer season, a small group of Chicagoans gathered in the upstairs attic of Hamburger Mary’s for a special two-night cabaret performance. If you’ve never been to Hamburger Mary’s for a burger or one of their daily drink specials, you’re missing out on a great Chicago restaurant with a rainbow twist. By that I mean that this special show was comprised of pride-based performances, including songs and stories celebrating every aspect of life and love.


The evening truly was a celebration for the gay community, not just in Chicago, but everywhere. And the timing could not have been better, as Illinois had recently recognized legal gay marriage just two weeks prior to this production. As was noted throughout the show, this historical achievement allows everyone to enjoy all the novelties (and perils) of marriage and commitment.



The show was put on by the Brown Paper Box Company, a Chicago-based group whose mission is to create “thought-provoking and accessible theatrical experiences without the glitz of overproduction.” Though many of the ensemble are not gay, they are talented and ready to share a united message that everyone should be able to enjoy the same ball-and-chain freedoms by loving whomever they damn well please. Without extravagant props or costumes, the cabaret was about the experiences being expressed, and the vehicle was well designed to showcase the accomplished company.


Mary’s Attic is a modest place for a show, but there’s a bar in the back with beer on tap and it’s the kind of place you would want to hang out. As a setting for a cabaret, the venue was spot on, and the atmosphere was fun – even without the drinks.


M. William Panek, leader of the Brown Paper Box troupe, hosted the performance and kicked off the night with light banter and an introduction to the members of the company. Panek put together the show by asking questions from his company about personal stories of their love lives – past and present.



Just behind Panek was the pianist Justin Harner, who accompanied nearly every performance, though you might miss his subtle hilarity, at least at first. While tickling the ivories, Harner became a standout even as others were taking center stage, and his true talent came out steadily throughout the show, culminating in a spectacular cover of Carole King’s “Natural Woman.”


Nick Shoda surprised everyone with a male cover of Whitney Houston’s timeless tune “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and wow, does he have a great voice. With charming dimples that appear as he sings and smiles, Shoda is the kind of performer who exudes love for what he does. His song of choice was a special arrangement by Andrew Edwards, adapting the high-powered notes to a gentleman’s voice. 


The performances and songs were varied, touching on first dates and being in love for many years. One such story was told through “Paper Bag,” a song by Fiona Apple performed by Megan Ensley, who remembered her first boyfriend in the fourth grade and recalled herself as a “stocky little thing with a bowl cut.” Now, as a fully-grown woman, Ensley conveyed the crushing blows of crushes with gorgeous vocal skills.



The show turned saucy when Stephanie Rohr took the stage with the song “I Never Do Anything Twice.” While it is a long anthem, it was the perfect choice for her voice, which is sweet like honeysuckle, but can chirp higher than a bird. There was a special appearance by accomplished songstress Jeanne T. Arrigo, who sounds like Joni Mitchell and sung and strummed her guitar to original songs about matured love and when she found out her husband’s last name.



Every singer in the Brown Paper Box was talented, entertaining and funny, including Anna Schutz. She’s a small woman with a big voice and sang about the ever-important parts in her cover of “Dance 10 Looks 3.” David Lipschutz was a powerful performer, covering Kermit the Frog and a hilarious version of “Old Fashioned Love Story.” Although he’s not gay, Lipschutz charmed the pants off guys and girls watching the show.


Another standout was Johnny Kyle Cook, who gave an impression rendition of “Getting Married Today.” The song itself is hilarious, but with the help of Rohr and Lipschutz, it was four minutes of non-stop giggling. Cook is a brilliant singer who closed the show with the Stevie Wonder classic “For Once in My Life.”



What I found most provocative about the show was not a cast of flamboyant singers and actors (they weren’t), but the ideal behind the entire production. An important part of the LGBTA community is this last letter – the “A.” Many who watched the show while sipping beers and cocktails were not gay, not lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Indeed, most of these performers were not gay, but these experiences – embarrassing or otherwise – are relatable to everyone. These performers and audience members were the “A” part of this community, the ally. They were there to support and be entertained, and it was an enormous success.


To find out more about the Brown Paper Box Company and their upcoming performance, check out their website.


Visit Hamburger Mary’s and Mary’s Attic for great food and fun.


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