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Uptown Underground brings a burlesque bonanza to Broadway

The subterranean cabaret casts itself as a one-stop speakeasy for “neovintage” entertainment.

Photograph: Greg Bell

“Chicago loves its history,” says Uptown Underground owner Jenn Kincaid. “We would be fools not to be in love with Chicago history.” That’s surely true for Kincaid, whose three-year-old performance lounge thrums with burlesque dancers, cabaret singers, magicians and mind readers—the kind of old-timey amusements that UU cheekily terms “retrotainment.”

“What’s interesting with us is the age range our audience spans,” Kincaid adds. “You’ve got your baby-boomer–plus generation that are revisiting types of entertainment they used to [enjoy] when they were young and dating, and then you have the new generation that are interested in this history and the nostalgia for something they’ve never experienced.”

The subterranean performance venue on North Broadway opened with a bash on December 31, 2014, and hit the ground running with a full calendar of burlesque, magic shows, variety acts and other throwbacks: entertainment that evokes the vaudeville era, but with a modern spin.

Kincaid’s weekly burlesque show, the Kiss Kiss Cabaret, found quick success after launching in 2011 at the Greenhouse Theater Center. There, three years of consistent sales persuaded Kincaid that a dedicated variety-show venue could be a viable prospect. With a 150-seat main stage and a 50-seat lounge, Uptown Underground features shows several nights a week.

In addition to Kiss Kiss Cabaret (which occupies the prime-time slots every Friday and Saturday), you’ll find troupes like Boy Toy’s Pocket Cabaret, featuring a mostly male boylesque cast; Acrobatica Infiniti, which combines circus acts and pop-culture cosplay; and the Vertical Side Show, in which creators Ray Gunn and Bazuka Joe bring a neovintage sensibility to burlesque. The monthly show Strip Joker adds a striptease element to stand-up comedy, while drag shows, cabaret singers and magic acts also thrive in the speakeasy-style environment.

“It’s intimate, inexpensive entertainment that focuses specifically on artistic beauty and political nowness,” says Kincaid. “And there is no such thing as a fourth wall: We talk to our audience, and we’re right there with our audience. People have a visceral reaction to it in a different way than they react to a traditional theater show.”

Next up for this burgeoning Uptown empire is the inaugural Burning City Neo-Vintage Entertainment Festival, spanning four days this July. “We’re hoping this is going to be an international festival as far as performers are concerned,” says Kincaid. “Chicago is doing so many cool things in this neovintage area. We need to be on the map with a really cool festival.”