Chicago Theatre Review
The Gift of Girl Power
Dynamite Divas – Black Ensemble Theatre
Jackie Taylor has done it again! Back to producing what BET does best, the divine and dynamic Ms Taylor has counterbalanced her recent popular and critical success, “Men of Soul,” with this new revue that simply screams “Girl Power!” Written and produced by this energetic lady, the show imagines a super-wealthy inventor named Mr. Maurice, who has invited four of music’s most talented, best-loved divas to his studio to participate in an internationally broadcast television special. With money being no object and every modicum of modern technology at his fingertips, Mr. Maurice, aided by his enthusiastic junior assistants, Youngblood and Hubert, sets his (and our) entertainment dream into motion.
He’s asked none other than Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Nancy Wilson and Roberta Flack to visit his studio to perform. Prior to their performance, as part of his three-stage rehearsal process, the ladies are treated to some special, motivational hologram performances by several of the musical divas from the past, ladies who’ve paved the way for today’s stars. Thanks to this show’s astoundingly talented ensemble, we see and hear the likes of Billie Holiday (“God Bless the Child”), Dinah Washington (“The Bitter Earth”) and Nina Simone (“Mississippi Goddam”). Later we also cheer Tina Turner raising the roof with “River Deep, Mountain High,” Patti LaBelle heating up the night with “On My Own Again” and Dionne Warwick warning us, “Don’t Make Me Over.” Beyonce even makes an appearance (“Love on Top”), just to remind everyone that the legacy of the diva is a continuous, ongoing journey. The ladies reminisce about the most important moments in their lives, as well as what has motivated them throughout their careers. Every memory sparks a series of hits, sung with flair and flamboyance by these four professional songbirds.
These divas are played by four of Chicago’s own divas. A BET favorite, the incomparable Rhonda Preston is the eldest of the quartet as Nancy Wilson. Ms. Preston’s poise and sheer star quality shines in songs like “You Don’t Know How Glad I Am,” “Face It, Girl” and the poignant “Guess Who I Saw Today.” The beautiful Melanie McCullough, another popular BET performer, sparkles as a sassy Roberta Flack. Perhaps the youngest of the four actor/singers, as Ms. Flack Melanie caresses hit songs like “Killing Me Softly” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” then gets sultry with the sexy “Reverend Lee.” The one and only Gladys Knight is played by the fantastic Chicago performer, Rashada Dawan. From early songs, like “Letter Full of Tears,” to more recent hits like “If I Were Your Woman,” “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” and the rousing “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Ms. Dawan brings soul, attitude and incomparable vocal skill to her role. But the crowd favorite opening night was the unbelievable Shari Addison as the Queen of Soul, Miss Aretha Franklin. Cloaked in an undeniable air of royalty, Ms. Addison rips into the popular “Baby, I Love You,” and then raises her voice to the stratosphere with “Respect,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Rock Steady” and the astonishing, overwhelming hit of the night, “Think.”
Much, much credit must go to the multitalented Rueben Echoles, who not only directs and choreographs this revue with sass and sizzle, but he’s beautifully costumed this cast of 14 in a myriad of stunning, stylish gowns and formalwear. But Mr. Echoles also plays the character of Mr. Maurice, an emcee overflowing with a luxuriant theatricality that keeps him in charge while still making him impishly lovable. His work is supported by Robert Reddrick’s talented seven-member instrumental combo, perched high above the stage, who keep the show rocking and rolling all night long. Denise Karczewski’s rich lighting and set design, enhanced by Aaron Quick’s fluid projections and sound creation, completes the slick professionalism of this show.
This new production is a much-welcome return to the kind of show that audiences have come to love and look forward to at Black Ensemble Theater. Jackie Taylor has once again created a joyous, toe-tapping new musical revue that both celebrates a number of legendary, internationally famous divas while also showcasing the dazzling talents of some of Chicago’s finest performers, as well. This holiday present is a gift that keeps giving on into the New Year, with a promise of many more wonderful musical productions to come in the months ahead.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 12-January 24 by Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-769-4451 or by going to www.blackensemble.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com