Chicago Theatre Review
Triple Threat Siblings
My Brother’s Keeper – Black Ensemble Theatre
Fayard and Harold, two triple threat siblings whose lives spanned the entire 20th century, were known as the Nicholas Brothers. They’re considered the best tap dancers of their day, perhaps in all entertainment history. They made a name for themselves with their acrobatic style of tapping, known in the business as “flash dancing.” Their signature move of incorporating a game of leapfrog, while tapping down a long flight of stairs, ending in the splits on each step, was captured on film in the movie, “Stormy Weather.” Then, without missing a beat, the brothers leapt over the band’s music stands to tap away on top of a grand piano. They perfected another move that’s still a jaw-dropper in today’s choreography: they’d drop to the floor in the splits and then rise back up to their feet, without using their hands. The term “amazing” had to be coined for artistry of the Nicholas Brothers.
Born in the South, raised in Philadelphia, the brothers would sit in the front row of the theater intently watching their parents, as they rehearsed with their band. The boys also witnessed inspiring performances by every great African American vaudeville act of the day and, without any formal dance training, began to imitate what they saw and heard. Fayard taught his brother, Harold, and sister, Dorothy, how to sing and dance. Together they became The Nicholas Kids, until Dorothy had enough and quit. The act was then renamed The Nicholas Brothers.
The Brothers became a bonafide hit, playing Harlem’s famous Cotton Club and working with greats like Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington. The boys went on to star on Broadway in the “Ziegfeld Follies of 1936” and the Rogers and Hart hit musical, “Babes in Arms.” Ultimately the brothers were drawn to Hollywood where they eventually made their debut on the silver screen. For the rest of their lives, the Nicholas Brothers performed and taught, alternating between making movies, performing in nightclubs, starring on Broadway, doing concerts and appearing on television. They even became an international hit touring Europe, Africa and Latin America. Today the act is still considered the apex in the art of tap.
Rueben D. Echoles, Jackie Taylor’s talented right-hand man at Black Ensemble Theatre for the past 15 years, has been an integral part of almost every past production. He should be clearing off some space on his mantle right now, because he’s a definite contender for several of this year’s Jeff Awards. This brilliant 21st century Renaissance man not only wrote and directed this entertaining and informative biographical musical, a feat in itself, but he also stars as one half of the famed Nicholas Brothers. Echoles is also the incredible artist behind the stunning choreography and the production’s beautiful costumes. He is, essentially, a one-man show.
As Harold Nicholas, Mr. Echoles is astounding, as usual. He tap dances like a well-tuned machine, sings like a bird and his characterization of the famous, talented African American performer is peerless. That Mr. Echoles is also responsible for almost every other aspect of the production is astounding and should be acknowledged.
The entire cast is equally as brilliant. Rashawn Thompson, as elder brother, Fayard Nicholas, is a another favorite local performer and a Jeff nominee for “The Marvin Gaye Story.” He’s appeared on stage all over Chicago and even crossed over to television. Together with Rueben Echoles, this talented young triple threat makes this biographical musical revue an artistic success so worthy of its standing ovation. The magnificent Shari Addison, a 2016 Jeff Award winner for her spot-on portrayal of Aretha Franklin at BET, is warm and wonderful as the Nicholas boys’ mother. Ms. Addison delivers a gorgeous, stirring rendition of “Master, Give Me Strength,” sung at her husband’s funeral. This is just one of several numbers written for this show by Rueben Echoles. Ulysses Nicholas, the dynamo patriarch behind the Nicholas Brothers’ initial success, is played with personality and enthusiasm by the talented Dwight Neal, and sister Dorothy Nicholas is nicely portrayed by lovely Katherine Thomas.
Two of the women in the lives of the Nicholas Brothers are played by a couple of top actress/singer/dancers. Jessica Seals, a continual BET favorite, plays Geri, Fayard’s outspoken first wife. She last starred in the title role of “The Other Cinderella” and is stellar once again in this production. Making her debut with this company is Taylay Thomas, who plays Dorothy Dandridge, Harold’s first wife. The heartbreak portrayed by this actress, following the birth to a child with special needs, is equally matched by Ms. Thomas’ ability to deliver a song with style and heart. Her rendition of “Take the A Train” is one of the standout moments of this show.
The production also has another breakout star in this production. Vincent Jordan, last scene in BET’s “The Jackie Wilson Story, is sensational and charismatic as Cab Calloway. His “Minnie the Moocher” and “Jumpin’ Jive” are both electrifying and magical. The ensemble, all of whom play multiple roles, provide backup for classic numbers like “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “The Best is Yet to Come,” “From This Moment On” and the soulful “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Mr. Echoles, it should be noted, has composed seven additional songs of his own to fill out the score of this show.
This is one fantastic production. Written, directed, costumed, choreographed by and costarring the inimitable Rueben Echoles, together with the incomparably talented Rashawn Thompson as the legendary Nicholas Brothers, this is a thoroughly entertaining evening of music and dance. Backed by the gifted, ever reliable musical direction of Robert Reddrick and his talented seven-member band, this Vegas style two-act musical revue entertains while it educates, recalling the lives of two gifted performers from the annals of entertainment. The production will strike a nostalgic note among the more mature audience members, while it opens the eyes of younger theatergoers. Spring will soon be taking Chicago by storm. In the meantime there’s warmth and electricity brewing at the Black Ensemble Theater in their new celebration of The Nicholas Brothers.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 11-March 26 by Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available 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.