Chicago Theatre Review
What’s Goin On?
The Marvin Gaye Story – Black Ensemble Theatre
(Don’t Talk About My Father Because God is My Friend)
Jackie Taylor continues Black Ensemble Theater’s 40th anniversary year, celebrating their success with remounts of some of BET’s most joyful past productions. The decision, however, to include the dark, disturbing life story of, inarguably, one of music’s finest singer/songwriters, feels out of place. The season began with two effervescent productions that literally lifted audiences to their feet with jubilance. “Doo Wop Shoo Bop” and, especially, “Those Sensational Soulful 60’s” reminded audiences why this talented ensemble continues in popularity. Even Ms. Taylor’s more recent tribute to Dionne Warwick, while it depicted both negative and positive aspects of the singer’s life, offered enough music and fond memories for our enjoyment. Unfortunately, with its curious subtitle, this remembrance of Marvin Gaye’s life emphasizes the artist’s pain and unpleasantness over the mirth and the music he created, making it a hard pill to swallow.
Marvin Gaye had a troubled life, addicted to drugs and emotionally and physically abused (and ultimately murdered) by his tyrannical father. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and Gaye would grow up to become more like his old man than Marvin could’ve foreseen. Marvin Gaye turned into an insecure, paranoid man, a domineering diva and a womanizing bully, while still remaining a devoted, loving son to his put upon mother, as well as a talented and respected musical entertainer for the world. While all of this personal turmoil is certainly a part of this gifted artist’s tortured life, and Ms. Taylor should be commended for not shying away from the murky details, it’s always the celebration of a singer’s music that draws audiences back to the Black Ensemble Theater.
This production, however, sadly features fewer musical numbers than most BET biographical revues. Opening with Marvin Gaye’s discovery and friendship with musical entrepreneur, Harvey Fuqua, we’re initially treated to their “Ten Commandments of Love.” From there the revue bounces to Gaye’s association with Motown’s Berry Gordy and Smokie Robinson. We meet a young Mary Wells singing one of her early hits, “Operator.” Next, we’re offered Marvin Gaye’s first top ten single, “Pride and Joy.” Finally, leading up to the intermission, the audience is treated to a series of three of the singer’s biggest hits: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” sung with his adored Tammi Terrell, and Gaye’s iconic version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
The second half of this two-and-a-half-hour show turns even darker and gloomier, as we watch Marvin Gaye sink further into depression, becoming increasingly dependent upon hard drugs and taking his pain and frustration out on everyone in his world. On the plus side, the act opens with the singer’s hit, the ironically ebullient, “What’s Goin On.” It continues with the toe-tapping “Let’s Get It On” and “Distant Lover.” But, despite a couple more offerings, the hit that rocks the audience is the singer’s seductive “Sexual Healing.” This biographical revue ends as it began, with Marvin Gaye, clad all in ethereal white, advocating our universal need for forgiveness. The entire company, also in white, joins him for the inspirational gospel hymn, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
In spite of the great songs that Ms. Taylor’s included in this musical bio-drama, missing are Gaye’s wonderful renditions of “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “I Want You,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “Mercy Mercy Me.” Simply put, the show would be far more entertaining with less book and more music. Additionally, the melodramatic quality of the script is only emphasized by director Daryl D. Brooks’ slow pacing and, sometimes, uninspired staging. Often an actor crosses downstage to deliver his lines facing the audience, while the other character(s) play the scene behind him. And while this can work once in a while, too much of this style becomes reminiscent of soap opera acting, rather than exciting musical theatre.
Rashawn Thompson has the perfect handsome, good looks, laid-back demeanor and smooth, velvety sound required to play Marvin Gaye. Thompson skillfully employs the singer’s cool, seductive vocals along with his signature sleepy-eyed countenance. A BET favorite, Melanie McCullough shines once again, this time playing both Jan Gaye and an exquisite Tammi Terrell. Yahdina U-Deen brings warmth and emotional depth to the singer’s long-suffering mother, Alberta. She digs down to the bottom of her soul for her gut-wrenching eleventh hour, “Oh My God.” Two other BET favorites, Rueben Echoles and Kyle Smith, are excellent as Berry Gordy and Smokie Robinson, and returning BET talent, Trequon Tate, holds the stage as Harvey Fuqua. As Gaye’s other family members, Kevin Patterson is strong and empathetic as Marvin’s younger brother Frankie, while Henri Watkins is the embodiment of nastiness as the tyrannical Marvin Gay, Sr. Through Mr. Watkins’ portrayal we observe a bitter, troubled soul tortured by his own personal demons, whose pain is inflicted upon his undeserving wife and children. Marvin Gaye will unfortunately model this same behavior in his later adult life. And, as is typical of any Black Ensemble production, the ensemble of singers and dancers, as well as Robert Reddrick’s stellar seven-member onstage band, truly steal the show.
As the Black Ensemble Theater’s 40th anniversary season moves forward, this time around Jackie Taylor’s tribute to super singer and songwriter Marvin Gaye is bigger on book and shorter than usual on song. While the hits she’s chosen to include are all appreciated, well-sung and choreographed, but there are several missed musical opportunities. Also, the melodramatic direction, the slow pacing and the uninspired staging, often lacking energy or dramatic tension, fail to serve the script. The revue seems, instead, to mimic the singer’s laid back style rather than to propel the story. There are, certainly, many wonderful elements in this interesting revival but, somehow, they don’t always add up to What’s Goin On.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 12-July 10 by Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark Street, 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.