Chicago Theatre Review
The Jackie Wilson Story – Black Ensemble Theatre
The Detroit-born soul singer and performer, who was justifiably nicknamed “Mister Excitement,” comes to life once again, thanks to Jackie Taylor’s spectacular remount of her record-breaking production from sixteen years ago. That critically acclaimed original production enjoyed a two-year run, including a national tour that culminated in six weeks at New York’s famous Apollo Theater. This time around, Ms. Taylor has another dynamo in title role. Kelvin Roston, Jr. plays Jackie Wilson with unstoppable enthusiasm and panache. This gifted, babyfaced actor/singer not only sounds incredibly like the famous performer, with his gorgeous tenor and astounding range; he also remarkably resembles Jackie Wilson. Loaded with energy, charisma and talent, Mr. Roston is the best reason to see this spectacularly entertaining and enlightening production.
Jack Leroy Wilson, called Sonny by his longtime friend and personal manager, B.B., was professionally christened Jackie Wilson by Billy Ward, after he hired the singer for his R&B quartet, The Dominoes. Jackie eventually broke away from the group to launch his own solo career, recording several hit songs by Berry Gordy, Jr. and Tyran Carlo. When his career began to flounder, Wilson finally decided, for various reasons, to leave the Brunswick label. He joined up with producer Carl Davis in Chicago to create a new soul sound that would take him into the final years of an illustrious career that was continually plagued by infidelity, alcohol and drug abuse and anger management issues.
The show is filled with so much memorable music. A sampling of Wilson’s hits include “Am I the Man,” “To Be Loved,” “Lonely Teardrops,” “No Pity (In the Naked City),” “Doggin me Around,” “Whispers Getting Louder,” “Baby Workout” and the exuberant “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher.” Sung with so much enthusiasm, they practically provoke dancing in the aisles. Other hit tunes by his contemporaries are featured, including the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron,” Frankie Lyman’s “Goody, Goody,” the Dominoes’ “Little Bitty Pretty One,” as well as Ms. Taylor’s original, gospel-inspired “When the Sun Refuse to Shine,” sung by the fabulous Kora Kishe Green.
In addition to the singer’s distinctive vocal styling, Wilson’s vivacious stage presence, impeccable dress and stylized choreography not only dazzled audiences but were said to inspire other top performers of his day. Soon such musical luminaries as Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were imitating Wilson’s signature pelvic thrusts, knee drops, spins, splits, back flips and slides across the floor. Jackie really knew how to work a room, especially the women. And although he was married three times, Wilson simply couldn’t keep his hands off other ladies, which had repercussions throughout his life. However, throughout everything, the most important, influential woman was always his mother, Eliza Mae Wilson.
But Kelvin Roston, Jr. IS Jackie Wilson, and this talented performer is truly the reason to see this show. His beautiful voice, energetic performance and unbridled charm is the stuff from which stars are made. Backed by a terrific ensemble cast, particularly the incredibly talented Kora Kishe Green, as Eliza Mae, Melanie McCullough as Wilson’s first wife, Freida, and Rueben Echoles as B.B., this show simply sings. Robert Reddick’s top-notch musical direction is supported by his talented six-piece instrumental combo, that’s always the pride of this company. Yet it’s Mr. Roston who is Mr. Excitement in this production, truly making this another must-see offering during Black Ensemble Theater’s stellar 40th Anniversary season.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 30-September 4 by Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark, 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.