Chicago Theatre Review
Music of the Soul
Sounds So Sweet – Black Ensemble Theatre
The Black Ensemble Theatre once again returns to what it does best: a musical revue of hit songs made famous by African American performers, most notably the girl groups. Instead of their usual format, however, which usually featured a master of ceremonies character introducing various famous divas, trios and quartets and the songs they made famous, Associate Director Rueben Echoles has written and directed a slightly different kind of musical entertainment. In this production, Mr. Echoles, creates a loving tribute to his two grandmothers, embodied in the role of a fictional character named Grandstine. This matriarch is remembered as a kind, southern lady, now passed from this life, who was equally devoted to both her family and her love of music. Although a bit too heavy on dialogue, both objects of the lady’s affection are presented in this new show with class, style and melodious memories.
Upon the death of their beloved mother and grandmother, Grandstine, this musical story revolves around a family who, after many years apart, are returning to the family house in Mississippi. They’re gathering together to honor the lady who instilled in them a love for music and each other. Grandstine didn’t want a funeral after her death, but rather a joyous, “Going to Heaven Party.” Grown daughter Ruth awaits the arrival of her sister Marcia, their children and grandchildren, to return home from around the country. They plan to immortalize their loved one in a musical memorial event. Family friend and local store owner, Robert Clarkson, also joins the gathering from time to time, bearing kindness, sympathy and love for his friends. During the two-act musical the audience enjoys songs like “Mr. Lee,” “Iko Iko,” “He’s So Fine,” a rousing “Traveling Shoes” and a poignant “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” among many others. The songs, some performed in their entirety, some sung as a medley, come from the past and the present, representing the hits of such luminaries as The Supremes, Sister Sledge and The Pointer Sisters, alongside more recent singing stars like Beyonce and Destiny’s Child.
The story portion of this production, while heartfelt and charming, could use some careful trimming. The play is too long; many plot points simply seem repetitive. The emotional aspect, although sincere, becomes a little heavy-handed, at times. The very best part of the evening, however, and the reason to see this production, are the exquisite performances by more than a dozen talented actor/singer/dancers, both young and old, singing songs that will evoke fond memories and send chills up the spine. Rhonda Preston and Dawn Blees are sensational as grown sisters Ruth and Marcia. Alone or together, these two astounding singers are worth the price of admission. But Yahdina U-Deen, so excellent in BET’s recent “At Last,” all but steals the show as Grandstine. This lady really deserves her own cabaret act.
Other musical dynamos whose voices raise the roof are Melanie McCullough as Melissa, Nicole Michelle Haskins as Ria and Jessica Brooke Seals as the youngest granddaughter, Tiana. Mark J.P. Hood lights up the stage with charisma and energy as Michael, a much-welcome male voice amid all these talented women, and Casey Hayes brings a sweet, gentile charm to his portrayal of Robert Clarkson.
It’s great to spend an evening in the company of so many talented performers, lifting their voices in yet another BET musical. Would that some of the book could be trimmed, this could be a sensational tune-filled revue, a delightful trip down memory lane for every generation. Featuring exciting hit songs like “We Are Family,” “Going Up Yonder” and “Survivor,” this piece has lots of variety and music of the soul for every age group. In its present incarnation, however, the show, although genuine in spirit, is simply too much said and not enough done. Just bring on the music!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 11-May 31 by Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, 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.