Jeff Bibik

Jeff Bibik performs at the Chicago Magic Lounge. 

“The Magic Parlour”

Looking for an antidote to the pain of the pandemic? Head to the Palmer House Hotel on Friday or Saturday night for “The Magic Parlour.”

Several times during his 90-minute solo show, Dennis Watkins says that his grandfather taught him that the magician's job is to inspire childlike wonder in his audience. And Watkins, who started learning from his granddad when he was only seven, does just that. In spades.

Returning to live performances after a long COVID-19–induced hiatus that prompted him to develop a very successful online series, Watkins also tells us that we are actually the ones responsible for making the magic. He proves his point by involving virtually every member of the audience — limited to 40 people at present — in his sleight of hand and mind-reading feats. He's so skillful and ingratiating about encouraging participation, even the shyest person won't mind.

I've seen “The Magic Parlour” several times over the decade since Watkins started it in the basement of the Chopin Theater, and he never ceases to amaze me and make me ponder how he does it. The show keeps changing, of course, as he introduces new bits, discards some old ones and moves others to the Encore Room after the show (really intimate magic for 12 people max).

He seems to be streamlining this time around, eliminating elaborate props like the body-size balloon he once climbed into and concentrating on tricks involving cards and numbers. Some of them come from the magician's handbook, but he always makes them his own — and really pushes the envelope. For example, many magicians request a dollar bill from a guest, then tear it apart and magically put it back together again, but the way he uses the serial number read from the original bill during the rest of the evening is dazzling.

The mentalist feats range from asking a guest to think of a person, then guessing that person's name by asking a few questions, to identifying objects culled from the audience at random while blindfolded. Watkins’ style has become more relaxed over time, so he's always a pleasure to watch.

I got to be part of a trick, too. Watkins asked me to think of a card, then with some flourish he went through a deck that had a different person's name written on each card and, sure enough, the card I'd merely thought of had my name written on it. He even knew that I had considered several other cards before settling on that one. I have no idea how!

Palmer House Hotel. Open run. Tickets: $79 (includes wine, beer, soft drinks), The Encore Room aftershow $30. Phone and website: 312.300.6803, themagicparlourchicago.com

Chicago Magic Lounge

I missed the original opening of the Chicago Magic Lounge in 2018 and managed not to get there before it shut down due to COVID-19, so I was excited to be invited to the reopening of this ambitious homage to close-up Chicago-style magic.

Past an entryway hidden by laundry machines recalling the commercial enterprise that once occupied the space is a 7,200-square-foot state-of-the-art theater and lounge presided over by Donald C. Clark, Jr. and Joseph Cranford. One of the highlights is the extensive collection of local magic memorabilia — programs, posters, photos, restaurant paraphernalia — lining the walls, filling cases and decorating almost every nook and cranny.

Magic every night of the week is on the bill in three spaces, with a changing roster of headliners and other performers. The cozy Performance Bar near the entrance has the magician's table built right into the bar and the advantage of being free, so you can stop in for a drink and some sleight of hand. “The Amazing Bibik” presided on my visit, peppering his simple shtick — cards, mini rubber rabbits, a wand — with amusing patter.

The main event is in the multi-tiered Blackstone Caberet, which offers Music & Magic on Mondays, the Showcase on Tuesdays, an Artist-in-Residence series on Wednesdays and The Signature Show the rest of the week, as well as roving magicians performing their legerdemain right at your table. The opening week Signature Show led off with emcee Jan Rose highlighting the history of Chicago magic and of the venue, followed by featured performer Justin Purcell treating us to lots of comic banter and a few tricks, one of them with half-a-dozen metal rings.

The headliner was Luis Carreon, an accomplished performer “by way of Mexico.” Most impressive was his disappearing-reappearing routine with an audience member's watch and a mini-piñata. The aftershow for premium ticket holders in the much smaller 654 Club showcased Paige Thompson, who had a penchant for anthropomorphizing her cards and made good use of a couple from the audience. It was nice to see a female magician for a change, though her spiel became tedious after a while.

In fact, by the end of the evening, I was worn out. Between the various table magicians and stage performers, I felt like I'd seen multiple variations on the same few, mostly standard tricks without the variety or originality of Watkins' performance. On the other hand, upcoming lineups may have more to offer.

The Blackstone Cabaret has a limited food menu along with drinks, but service was so slow that it took half an hour for the server to get to us in the first place and another 30 minutes — plus a complaint to the management — to get a glass of wine.

5050 N. Clark St. Open run. Tickets: $20-$75 depending on show and seat. Phone and website: 312- 366-4500, chicagomagiclounge.com

Both “The Magic Parlour” and the Chicago Magic Lounge currently require proof of vaccination and masks.

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