Chicago Theatre Review
A Heatwave of Talent
The Marvelous Marvelettes – Black Ensemble Theatre
Destined to become one of Motown’s most famous girl groups, five high school teenagers from Inkster, Michigan entered a talent show in 1960 as the Casinyets (“Can’t sing yet”). When they placed a disappointing fourth in the competition their dream of auditioning for Motown, Detroit’s famous recording company, was crushed. However, because a kindly teacher strongly believed in the their talent, phone calls were made and the group landed a meeting at Motown. The rest, as they say, is history.
Berry Gordy was impressed with the girls’ talent but changed their name to the Marvelettes. He also challenged the group to come back after they’d written their own songs. When the girls returned, group member Georgia Dobbins had written “Please Mr. Postman,” which would soon propel the ladies to the top of the charts, making them the first girl group to record a million dollar hit.
The music business offered a lifetime of stark lessons. Being a top-rated singing group was less glamorous than the girls expected. The group was constantly touring or recording, their songs were always being retooled by the Motown suits, the girls were forced to drop out of school to fulfill their contractual demands for personal appearances, a promised tutor never materialized so that they could complete their high school education and their financial rewards were extremely disappointing. Stress and health issues plagued the girls over time and friendships soon deteriorated. By 1980 the original Marvelettes had lost most original members and the group eventually dissolved. In later years the Marvelettes were awarded many honors, including the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award, and they were eventually inducted into both the Vocal Group and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
BET’s dynamic founder presents Reginald Williams‘ dramatization of this extraordinarily talented female pop group in true Jackie Taylor style. The playwright compresses many of the actual events, allowing the Marvelettes‘ toe-tapping songs to really tell their story. Director Rueben D. Echoles and musical director Robert Reddrick (along with his talented band) keeps this well-paced production in continual motion. With so many high-energy, intricately choreographed musical numbers (including “Playboy,” “Beechwood 4-5789” and “Don’t Mess With Bill”) and also by moving back and forth in time via flashbacks. Ruthanne Swanson’s eye-popping, colorful fashions from the 60’s and 70’s help keep the ladies in perfect style.
The cast is led by a number of fiercely talented performers. Melanie McCullough is lovely and charismatic as group leader, Gladys. Alanna Taylor, so fabulous as Etta James in BET’s “Chicago’s Golden Soul,” once again leaves her mark as Wanda, the group’s pushy replacement for Georgia (the lovely Marquecia Jordan). Kylah Frye (Juanita), Christina Harper (Katherine) and Katrina D. Richard (Georgeanna) make up the remainder of this talented quintet, with Rhonda Preston and Deanna Reed-Foster charming the audience’s socks off telling their story as present-day versions of Juanita and Katherine. Robert N. Isaac makes a shifty Berry Gordy and Daniel Phillips is impressive, both as Motown executive Brian Holland and singing sensation Jimmy Ruffin (crooning a soulful “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted”).
The story of the Marvelettes is fascinating and, in many ways, not unlike most of the backstories of music’s best. “Dreamgirls,” for instance, which provides a fictional account behind the rise of the Supremes, is not that different from the history of the Marvelettes. It’s their own infectious music, however, plus a few additional Motown hits thrown in for good measure (such as “Heatwave” by Martha and the Vandellas), that give this show its joyful power. Like all of Jackie Taylor’s wonderful biographical revues, this musical provides its audiences with many welcome memories while exposing the little-known behind-the-scenes struggles and heartaches once hidden from the public. Any show that inspires audiences to sing, dance and clap their hands with joy is an unbridled good time.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 18-September 7 by Black Ensemble Theatre at the BET Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets by be purchased by calling 773-769-4451 or by going to www.blackensemble.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.