The Fly Honey Show returned to Thalia Hall for its 13th season Labor Day weekend, and it did not disappoint. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the institution that is The Fly Honey Show, for the past thirteen years this burlesque, comedy, and variety show has entertained Chicago audiences.
A unique element of the show has always been the community involvement, and what is known as “honey season.” The Honeys would offer dance workshops, then have open auditions and recruit as many dancers and movers from all walks of life and experience levels as they could. Over 100 dancers used to perform over five weekends through August and September. Each weekend would have its own headliners, and each evening would have a one-night-only performance. Naturally, I was curious how the Honeys would pack all of the sweet traditions we know and love into their newly rewritten and revitalized show.
“Honey Season” has now evolved into a “honey festival,” with the festivities taking place over four performances at Thalia Hall instead of five weeks. The culture setting that usually takes place over an entire summer of festivities needs to be packed into a few performances.
The hosts went through a fun 15-20 minute opening monologue, interacting with the rest of the performers and the audience. Inside of it they instruct the audience how to interact with the performers, about the importance of consent, the freedom we should all feel in the venue. Prior to attending, I was curious whether The Fly Honeys would be able to transfer the sense of safety that the performance has always had to a commercial venue. My personal experience was quite positive, I wore layers of fishnet, a standard Fly Honey uniform but certainly not everyday wear, and received no negative attention and only compliments.
The co-hosts responsible for writing and conveying these messages, and holding us sweetly through the experience, are Mary Williamson and Melissa “BoomBoom” DuPrey. Williamson and DuPrey are icons of Chicago stages and screen. Williamson was most recently seen in Lookingglass’ Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon, while DuPrey has been a regular on Grey’s Anatomy and is well known for her slate of solo shows including Good Grief. Williamson and DuPrey are comedic geniuses in contrasting ways, which means there is something for everyone to laugh at. They have rewritten the opener to include crowd favorites like the call and response: “this is a big, f*ck off show!” telling us they will “leave no hole unfilled!” and there will be lots of “gay dancing!” Their banter is vulgar but hilarious, inviting you to be as freaky and funny as they are.
A highlight of the hosts’ performances was DuPrey’s ritual invoking the sweet, sticky honey of the Orisha Oshun. DuPrey’s spirituality features heavily in her work. In a giant gold headpiece she moved, trancelike, to the drums, and sang a prayer to Oshun. It was sanctified, and glorious. I thank you for that moment. The second host highlight was “The Next Act Is,” a James Brown inspired number where the hosts are about to reveal the next act, but keep getting so worked up in their vocal gymnastics they need a cape just like Brown at the Apollo Theatre in 1985. Mary emcee’d while Melissa DuPrey and Bethany Thomas sang and skrelted their hearts out. It’s a moment I hope stays in future shows. Bethany Thomas’ rock alto belt is a gift we should all buy a ticket to see, anytime she’s willing to give it to us.
Other classic moments such as The Fly Honey Fan were incorporated, with Deandra Elizabeth M. Alaba walking the iconic moment. The Honeys march across the stage with a fan to va-va-voom music, that they plug in onstage, and blows glitter on Alaba while they strut, shake out their curls (hair by Ray Sanchez) and flirt with the audience. Set designer Eleanor Kahn and lighting designer Slick Jorgensen did a phenomenal job recreating the sultry, saturated burlesque atmosphere the Honeys have always had, despite the vaulted ceilings of Thalia Hall. Your eye goes exactly where Jorgensen wants it to go.
The nostalgic pieces of the show were bolstered by the return of so many familiar faces in addition to the hosts, like choreographers Erin Kilmurray and Kasey Alfonso, and long time Honey MVPs Alyssa Gregory, rapper Marta Jean Evans, Empress Darling, Mia Vivens, Ginny Cook, Quinn Tsan, and many more. Kilmurray’s muscular yet sensual dance style is all throughout the show, and her performance of the choreography is captivating. I love when a performance is a feat, and that is what The Fly Honeys choreography can invoke when it shines. Mary Williamson and Quinn Tsan did an acoustic medley including one number they’ve done in years prior, a cover of “Women of the World”, singing “women of the world / take over / ‘cause if you don’t the world will come to an end / and it won’t take long.” A peaceful, beautiful interlude inside of all the bass thumping action.
The Honeys ran it all the way back to their founding with the return of host, founder, and writer Shannon Matesky. A prolific spoken word artist, Matesky has presented her work at the Kennedy Center and was recently seen in Ain’t No Mo’ on Broadway. Matesky was commanding onstage, her words driving the dancers as she recited, “this buzz costs you, what do you think it costs me?” A founder of the show returning with a new piece of work was a satisfying moment for long time fans, and captured where The Fly Honey show currently is in its evolution..
The rest of the Fly Honey cast is deeply talented, and the Honeys are spreading the wealth by giving those folks solos. This is in lieu of having a third host as they have in past years, and I like this format much more as it leans into the variety nature of the show. Matty Bee sang a techno-heavy rendition of “Fever” in a delicious dance trio, with the Fly Honey band making some fantastic choices about what could have been a difficult arrangement of the song. Nexus J shines rapping Ludacris’ “Moneymaker” and then follows up with seriously sultry vocals throughout the show. Neala Baron sang “Fever” as Dalton Rhodes did an impossibly sexy pole routine. Rhodes is a Fly Honey favorite and it’s not hard to see why, the tips of their boots could have touched to top of Thalia Hall as they soared ever higher in graceful loops.
I attended August 31st and so saw Irregular Girl, Auntie Kim (Eunji Kim) and Adam Ness as the featured performers. I thoroughly enjoyed Adam Ness’ set, their vocals were clear and beautiful, and the sound mix (Jane Askew) allowed them to come through clearly. Ness is a singer who could have their own bill and I’d attend. Irregular Girl stole my heart with a Folies Bergere inspired dance solo with large feathered fans to Portishead’s Glory Box. Irregular Girl had us eating out of their palm. The number didn’t rush, as Irregular Girl indoctrinated us in the art of anticipation, blue feathers rustling through the air, across eyelashes and shoulders. Auntie Kim, a standup comedian, was persistently irreverent until I had to laugh, promoting notions of equality by insisting that “we are all doing cocaine off the same key.”
Equality has long been a value of The Fly Honey Show. A catchphrase that accompanied the show for many years was “everybody no matter what your body.” Accessibility to the show has changed with the ticket prices, it was hard for this reviewer to get a ticket and then I was almost turned away at the door. However, the thing that always makes the Honeys extra sweet is the personal attention provided by their producers, who quickly came to my rescue.
The question is, how can the culture of inclusion be extended to the venue as well as the hosts, performers, and Honey team? It’s not that Thalia Hall is inhospitable, it is just that they do not know the culture as well as the folks doing it for 13 years. I should note for those interested in accessible tickets, Thalia Hall has a reserve of community tickets that the Fly Honeys included in their FAQ.
The question of hospitality is worth considering as they continue to develop the show in their hometown, as The Fly Honeys could easily tour. Workshops in your town, one night only performances of your local talent, the venture writes itself. The Honeys are smart to keep experimenting with retaining their culture as the show gets bigger and bigger each season.
Ultimately, I was glad to be back and enjoy The Fly Honey Show in this new format. What keeps me returning to the show, as a performer (you will never know what years) and an audience member, is that the Honeys leave it all on the stage. The Fly Honey Show is raw, muscular, funny, c*nty and real, even in the classic glamour of Thalia Hall. Buzz buzz baby bees, you’ve got a hit on your hands!
BIAS ALERT: I have performed in The Fly Honey Show, as has a good percentage of the Chicago Theatre Community, and have collaborated with some of the performers previously.
Author’s Note: There are a plethora of performers and I wanted to speak to as many individually as I could. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with any corrections.
Created by Erin Kilmurray
Produced by Erin Kilmurray, Missi Davis, Alyssa Bierce, Quinn Tsan, + Vic Wynter
With Original Music by Kimmortal, Finom, Thair, + Glitter Moneyyy
Direction – Erin Kilmurray with Mary Williamson
Writing – Mary Williamson, Melissa “BoomBoom” DuPrey, with Shannon Matesky.
Choreography – Erin Kilmurray with Kasey Alfonso and The Fly Honeys
Music + Band Direction / Arrangements – John Cicora
Assistant Music Direction / Arrangements – Karolina Prus
Additional Composition / Arrangements – Mikhail Fiskel + Panterah
Vocal Direction – Thair Thompson
Scenic Design – Eleanor Kahn
Lighting Design – Slick Jorgensen
Audio Engineer – Jane Askew
Hosts – Mary Williamson, Melissa “BoomBoom” DuPrey
The Fly Honeys – Aaliyah Cristina, Alyssa A. Gregory, Bethany Thomas, Breon Arzell, Empress Darling, Deandra Elizabeth M. Alaba, Erin Kilmurray, Ginny Cook, Jillian Endebrock, Kara Brody, Kasey Alfonso, KIKI King, Mario Blanco, Marta Jean Evans, Matty Bee, Mia Vivens, Neala Baron, Nexus J, Peter Navarro, Quinn Tsan
The Band – Andrew Green, Hana Fujisaki, John Cicora, Mary Halm, Karolina Prus, Walter Sanchez, Melissa Neff, Devin Fanslow, Thair Thompson