Chicago Theatre Review
Men of Soul – Black Ensemble Theatre
Jackie Taylor’s wonderful, effervescent Black Ensemble Theater, always a joyous gift to Chicago, is back doing what they do best. The company’s generous founder and CEO has tapped into the many talents of Daryl Brooks, allowing him to create and direct a show that praises and illuminates the considerable talent of dozens of top-notch recording
artists. These musical stars, both African-American and Caucasian, are some of the men who have, over many decades, entertained the world with their recordings, television appearances and live, sold-out concerts.
They are the beloved, gifted Men of Soul, and listening to their music is not only a pleasure in itself, but these songs will spark fond memories for audiences of all ages.
The show bursts onto the stage with power and pizzazz. An ensemble of eleven super talented men and women, dressed smartly in Ruthanne Swanson’s sparkling, silver suits and white chiffon gowns, open the
show with a song written especially by Mr. Brooks, aptly entitled “Men of Soul.” The ground has been laid, the stage has been set, and we’re off and running. Backed by masterful Musical Director, arranger and drummer Robert Reddrick’s sweet-sounding combo, consisting of JustinDillard on keyboard, Gary Baker on guitar and Mark Miller on bass, the enthusiastic audience suddenly finds themselves clapping, singing along and dancing in their seats, from the first dulcet chords.
Every single performer is a standout and could headline his own show devoted to the singers they portray. With minimal biographical introduction, each performer takes the stage to wow audiences with his unique talent. So much like the stars these actor/singers are portraying, theatergoers will feel as if they’ve suddenly stepped back
in time. Combined with the visual magic created by Ms. Swanson’s costumes and Rueben D. Echoles’ period-perfect wig designs, and highlighted by Denise Karczewski’s radiant lighting and CoCo Ree Lemry’s versatile, multi-tiered Las Vegas style set and sensational projections, the audience seamlessly slips back to the Golden Era of Soul.
Rashawn Thompson’s exciting portrayal of Ray Charles opens this revue, with his “Georgia On My Mind,” nearly stopping the show just as it begins. But there’s a lot to come. Rueben D. Echoles raises the temperature of the room as James Brown, gyrating and growling out “Sex Machine.” The magnetic Matthew Payne dons those sprayed on trousers to become Tom Jones, while handsome Daniel Phillips creates a spot-on Lionel Richie crooning “Endless Love,” and cranks up the party with his rousing “All Night Long.” Matthew Hunter, as Jeffrey Osborne, makes
beautiful music with his rendition of “On the Wings of Love” and “You Should Be Mine.” Then we have one of the true highlights of this production: Kevin Pollack, in his BET debut, absolutely bringing down the house as Joe Cocker, with his thrilling, authentically performed Woodstock version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” He
transforms into the sober, cleaned up Cocker with his Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong.” Wow! But just when audiences think they’ve seen it all, along comes sexy Kyle Smith as Prince, closing Act I with “Purple Rain,” spinning, shimmying and doing the splits, all-the-while making love to his microphone. Theatergoers need a 15-minute intermission, simply to catch their breath!
Then Act II gets off to bang with the show’s three lovely backup singers (Cherise Thomas, Rhonda Preston and Dawn Bless), reminding audiences of their own cumulative and individual talents, singing Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.” At the conclusion of the number, we see a promising projection that reads “Coming: The Women of Soul;” and, if this revue is any indication of what audiences can expect, a line for tickets may be forming at this minute!
Matthew Hunter returns to the stage as Billy Ocean, opening this half of the revue with his soulful, “Caribbean Queen.” Kyle Smith becomes a crooning James Ingram with his hit, “One Hundred Ways.” Daniel Phillips
astounds the audience as a wonderfully sung Peabo Bryson, warming up the crowd with his “Feel the Fire,” then transporting them to “A Whole New World.” Next we have the charismatic, babyfaced Matthew Payne,
donning a bowl-cut wig and glitzy glasses, and sitting down to the piano as Elton John. Mr. Payne’s “Benny and the Jets” gets the audience rocking and swaying to its joyous rhythm. Suddenly Luther Vandross, brilliantly portrayed by Lyle Miller, brings us his great “Stop to Love.” Kevin Pollack affectionately returns to the stage as Billy Joel,
fighting depression through his music, with his wonderfully sung “My Life.” The audience bops to the beat of El DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night” and Bobby Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” just before
the show’s finale: a medley, sung by the entire ensemble, saluting the incomparable Bill Withers. We end the evening delighting in the emotional “Grandma’s Hands,” a stirring “Ain’t No Sunshine,” an impassioned rendition of “Use Me,” a fervidly sung “Just the Two of Us” and, closing the show, Mr. Withers’ touching ode to friendship and
love, “Lean on Me.”
This brisk, buoyant, magnificently entertaining musical revue, written and directed by Black Ensemble Theater’s multitalented Daryl D. Brooks, is THE show of the summer. It’s a reverent retrospective of the talent shared by these Men of Soul and the pleasure they’ve brought to our lives. This revue is constantly engaging, a high-octane production filled with wonderful, memory-evoking songs performed by an ensemble of gifted musical artists. Magnificent musical direction, choreography and scenic, costume and wig design all support this astounding cast. This revue is, in short, the soulful show it proclaims to be. It never fails to give its audience a brilliant evening of Endless Love.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 12-August 31 by Black Ensemble Theater, at their Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 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.