Chicago Theatre Review
A Reality Show and Tell
Last Dancer Standing (More Than Hip Hop) – Black Ensemble
Ten of the finest, most talented, accomplished dancers in the nation are competing on a televised reality show for the opportunity to win a whopping $10,000 and to be crowned The Last Dancer Standing. That’s the premise for Rueben Echoles’ latest creative endeavor. This talented, Chicago-based Renaissance artist not only wrote, but directed and choreographed this inventive new production. And it is wonderful. When the audience enters the BET Cultural Center, they’ll think they’ve wandered into a real TV studio. Sound checks, camera angles, dancers warming up and finessing their choreography and sudden, last minute script changes for the announcer all play out in real time, as the audience is ushered to their seats. And then…it’s show time!
In this reality show version of what BET does so well— entertaining musical revues—Echoles focuses, not only on what we see on the fictional television program, but also the many backstage dramas and intrigues, as well. The premise is that TV producer Sebastion has invited two other fictional celebrities, Launa and rapper Justin Paul, to join him on the bench to judge these talented dancers. Each week, through a combination of home audience votes and live, on-camera critiques by the three judges, the number of dancers has dwindled down to the final ten. This two-act musical show is a composite of the final weeks of competition, resulting in the winner of The Last Dancer Standing.
In addition to the contestants’ weekly challenge to create choreography and dance to the music of specified pop and r&b artists, the musical is moved along by a slew of backstage stories. The program is hosted by supposed singing celebrity named Radiant Michaels. She’s an up-and-coming recording star in her own right, but she’s still living in the shadow of her famous celebrity mother, Evette Michaels. When Mama Michaels unexpectedly arrives to appear on the TV show, Radiant’s rising star power suddenly fades. Familial tension and jealousy begin to blossom and seethe. Add to this an unwanted flirtation by cocky Justin Paul with Radiant, as well as a strained, pursued courtship between Sebastion and Evette.
Besides these two romantic involvements, several of the dancers contribute some additional conflict. Two of the top male contestants are in constant conflict because Raymond isn’t comfortable with Nikita’s flamboyant gay persona. Erica, one of the few Caucasian dancers, has no patience for anyone who can’t quickly pick up the choreography. She and Destiny almost come to blows over their different learning styles. Sam decides to ignore the program’s rules and over-imbibes at the local dance club. Leah, Tyra and Jason do what they can to both keep peace between their fellow dancers, while trying to excel each week in the challenging choreography.
The cast, many of whom have been enjoyed in previously BET shows, is uniformly excellent. On the production end, two Jeff Award-winning actresses, Alexis J. Roston and Shari Addison, are standouts playing mother and daughter Radiant and Evette Michaels. Alexis wows with her rendition of “Gotta Move” and “In Common;” while Shari blows the roof off with her rousing “Ain’t Nobody” and “Through the Fire.” Andre Teamer makes a suave, yet cunning Sebastion. Deverin Deonte is confident, smooth and sexy as Justin Paul and lovely Lauren Wells is strong and professional as Launa.
Each of the dance contestants is gifted and full of energy, especially as we watch them dancing for their lives. Linnea Norwood and Kylah Frye are exquisite as Tyra and Leah; Charlotte Drover is magnificent as feisty Erica; Lemond A. Hayes lets his freak flag fly proudly and magnificently as Nikita; Brian Nelson is a mover and shaker as Raymond; Junior White is sensational as Jason; Brian Boller is a true standout as Sam; Alexis Aker brings style and grace to Daniela; and Shonee Muse is memorable and quite funny as Destiny. Other talented dancers include Trequon Tate, Michael Adkins, along with the show’s three stellar singer/dancers Renelle Nicole, Jessica Seals and Levi Stewart.
The inimitable Robert Reddrick once again serves as the musical director for this production, leading his above-the-stage four-member band to new heights. Denise Karczewski and Bekki Lambrecht have co-designed a stage set that well-serves this production, and Cherise Thomas’ glitzy and spangled costumes dazzle appropriately.
Rueben Echoles’ writing, direction and exciting choreography challenges his gifted company but never demands more than they’re capable of achieving. This is an especially unique version of what Jackie Taylor’s Black Ensemble Theatre does so well. The show offers a high-octane, winning musical revue filled with a variety of music and choreography, interesting and amusing characters and brilliant theatrical artistry suitable for audiences of every age. And, what’s more, the theatre audience gets to vote on the final winner! This excellent production is an entertaining homage to our current era of reality TV. It’s a fun evening that both shows and tells with perfection.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 22-September 3 by Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling them 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.