Review: All in Love Is Fair (Black Ensemble Theater)

  
  

All is fair in Love, Illinois

  
  

All In Love Is Fair - Jenny Lamb and Dwight Neal - Black Ensemble Theatre

  
Black Ensemble Theater presents
  
All in Love Is Fair
  
Written and Directed by Jackie Taylor
at Beacon Street Theater, 4520 N. Beacon (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $40-$48  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Somewhere near the southern tip of the state, the fictitious Illinois town of Love is crammed with couples in and out of love, straight and (closeted) gay, mixed race and size, seasoned and raw. One is celebrating a 50thanniversary, another is breaking up just after the honeymoon, and another reconnects after a three-month separation. What sets such familiar folks apart in Jackie Taylor’s diverting new 150-minute musical All in Love Is Fair is the score by Luther Vandross: In moments of crisis or ardor they burst out in ballads that amount to emotional meltdowns as naturally as they fight, romance, and reconcile.

All In Love Is Fair - Katrina Miller and Lyle Miller - Black Ensemble TheatreTaylor’s song-setting script contrasts these generic couples. But the selections, by far the best excuse for the generic plot lines, connects them, wonderfully. As always, Taylor can find talent and, despite the overmiking that disguises the great chops, lungs, and pizzazz of this 13-member ensemble, this is a showcase to make them stars. Robert Reddrick’s musical direction and arrangements are chartbusting right.

Playing the coy hostess as she narrates the soapy stories, Katrina V. Miller also digs deep into “The Way We Were.” Rhonda Preston, as a 68-year-old marriage survivor, puts a lifetime of devotion into “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman,” while, as her adoring husband, Zachary Boyd testifies to heaven on the “Power of Love” and in “So Many Ways.” Donald Barnes teaches us to “Wait For Love,” Lawrence Williams is a ladykiller with his sultry “For the Good Times,” and Daryl Brooks pleads, with contagious fervor, that he “Don’t Want To Be A Fool.”

Carrie (her full name) knocks the soul in and out of “When You Tell Me That You Love Me,” her love offering echoed by the searing lamentation of Dawn Bless Comer’s “Fools Fall In Love.” Aerial Williams reinvents all the crushing infatuation of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Jenny Lamb takes on “All The Man I Need,” as if introducing it to the world fully fresh.

Bringing down the house is belting phenom Vasily Deris whose “Never Too Much” and “Dance With My Father” had the audience forming a fan club on the spot. As they celebrate their good times at the town’s well-named Diversity Club, the troupe come together triumphantly in the raucous “Bad Boy Having a Party” and Taylor’s own signature creation “Love, Illinois.”

If that sounds like a command as well as place, this is the musical to mean it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
All In Love Is Fair - Dawn Mitchell - Black Ensemble Theatre All In Love Is Fair - Katrina Miller and Lyle Miller All In Love Is Fair - Vasily Deris
All In Love Is Fair - Lawrence Williams All In Love Is Fair - Caririe and Vasily Deris All In Love Is Fair - Aeriel Williams and Lawrence Williams

Performances for All In Love Is Fair are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.  Tickets are $45 on Fridays and $47.50 on Saturdays and Sundays. Discounts are available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets, including group tickets, are available by calling the Black Ensemble Theater Box Office at773-769-4451, or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.  All performances take place at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon Street.

     
     

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REVIEW: The Other Cinderella (Black Ensemble Theater)

 

Definitely not your Mama’s Cinderella!

 

Katrina Miller, Candace Edwards, Rhonda Preston, Robin Beaman

    
Black Ensemble Theater presents
    
The Other Cinderella    
 
Written and Directed by Jackie Taylor
at
Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon (map)
through January 9  |  tickets: $45   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

“Cinderella” has always been one of my favorite stories from childhood. I have to qualify this statement by revealing that I like the original Grimm’s version called “Aschenputtel,” that was more about the hard economic realities of marriage. Black Ensemble’s The Other Cinderella is a hilarious and decidedly unsanitized take on the classic. As with most BE musical productions, this show starts with a dazzling revue of the cast’s talents that introduce us to the Land of Other – a.k.a. the hood.

Candace Edwards and Lawrence Williams (1)After a dazzling musical opening that introduces the cast, we are taken to the hood, er..Land of Other, where three buddies and a girl are hanging out, waiting to hear the lottery numbers. This lottery will decide who gets the job in the palace court. Rueben Echoles is the lucky winner of the job as Page in the palace. Daniel Simmons and Joshua N. Banks play his pals Groundhog and Peanut Butter respectively. Niina Coleman plays Alice, the Page’s sister. The roles are a celebration of the better side of life in the hood. Page, Groundhog, Peanut Butter and Alice have a sweet camaraderie that rarely gets portrayed in the usual venues. Mr. Echoles is a comic wonder with his elastic face, great physicality, and bulls-eye timing as Page. Simmons and Banks are a lot of fun to watch as well.

Page comes up against the royal court of Other played by the formidable Michael Bartlett as the King’s Attendant and Mandy Lewis as the Queen’s Lady in Waiting. Mr. Bartlett has a marvelous baritone speaking voice that he uses to great humor lavishing praise on the King. Ms. Lewis is lovely and sings a beautiful duet with Mr. Bartlett about skin color called “Look at Me”. Trinity Murdock plays the King with wonderful bombast and command. Noreen Stark plays the Queen with just the right amount of royal serenity and backbone to stand up against the King. Writer and director Jackie Taylor mixed some modern ingredients in this production. The King and Queen are stressed out that their son the Prince (Lawrence Williams) is not giving any signs of finding a suitable wife. The King doesn’t like one of the Prince’s friends because he is gay.  He also insists on throwing a ball which forces the Prince to pick a woman from the attendees. The Queen is aghast at this edict and would rather see her son with a man if that would make him happy. (I guarantee you that this was not in the Grimm’s version or the Lesley Anne Warren/Stuart Damon version back in the 60’s!)

Meanwhile, back in the hood, we are introduced to Cinderella and her stepfamily. It is truly the villains that make this production laugh out loud funny. Rhonda Preston plays Stepmother, who works all day at the post office and is “lookin’ for a man to ring my bell”. Robin Beaman plays Stepsister Geneva and Katrina Miller plays Stepsister Margarite. Beaman and Miller made my sides hurt from laughing as they taunted Cinderella, played by the lovely Candace Edwards. They engage in what is known as playing the dozens, which is trying to out-insult your adversary. Preston brings down the house when she reaches her boiling point with Cinderella, pulling a classic neighborhood fight move by taking off her wig and doing a Mohammed Ali boxing dance. Ms. Preston channels some of the greatest comic women, including Carol Burnett, as she descends the stairs to the ball. Ms. Miller is absolutely brilliant as a vain hoochie mama who tries to seduce the prince with a bump-and-grind. Her hair color changes with each scene in true ghetto fabulousness. Ms. Beaman plays the wide-eyed Prince-stalker to perfection. When she meets him at the ball she goes into a crazy baby voice asking for a ring. The Stepsisters sing a mocking tune called “Wash Them Walls” that is very funny both visually and lyrically.

As this musical takes place in the hood, the props and the premises are a bit different. The Fairy Godmama is a Jamaican style wish-granter, played by the talented and beautiful Deja Taylor. Cinderella doesn’t have little rodents for friends as that is no joke or cute to some folks. Fairy Godmama puts a stretch Hummer outside the door with Usher as the driver and Denzel Washington as a goody for herself. Cinderella’s hair is magically done under the do rag that she always wears. A gorgeous gown is under her frumpy housecoat and golden stilettos appear in Godmama’s purse. The mostly Black audience got a laugh when Godmama told Cinderella to be home by 11:45. She would have said midnight but worried about CP time, which stands for Colored People time-always a bit late.

 

Christina Cain Mandy Lewis, Noreen Stark, Lawrence Williams, Trinity Murdock, Michael Bartlett
Katrina Miller, Robin Beaman, Rhonda Preston Lawrence Williams, Katrina Miller

The ball is a dazzling display of costumes and dancing. The men are garbed in gorgeous long jackets and cream-colored shoes. The women are visions in gold – that is until the Step Sisters arrive in tacky mantrap splendor. A special party crasher arrives in the form of Christina Cain as Dorothy from Kansas. She wants to join the Kingdom of Other and a gasp goes up in the court. Everyone gives the White girl an incredulous look but the King and Queen are more welcoming if she can pass some tests to prove she belongs in Other.

She has to eat the royal watermelon and identify the three most popular greens in Black households by taste. Ms. Taylor has spun the stereotypes on their ridiculous heads by writing this role. Dorothy Gale from Kansas went to Oz and apparently didn’t like home when she went back. The final test is for Dorothy to sing the blues and sing she does. Ms. Cain rocks “The White Girl Blues” and is welcomed into the kingdom.

The story has an interesting ending that is a departure from both Grimm and the sanitized Disney version. The shoe fits more than one woman! You will have to check out this wonderful production to see how that plays out. You can be assured that you will have a good time, hear some great music, and be astounded by the costumes both on stage and in the audience. I love seeing a man in head to toe turquoise down to the socks and shoes and women actually dressed for the theatre. It’s old school all the way.

   
    
Rating: ★★★   
   
    

Daniel Simmons, Rueben Echoles, Joshua N Banks

The Other Cinderella runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm through January 9th, 2011. The theatre is located at 4520 N. Beacon in Chicago. This location is around the corner from what will be Black Ensemble’s new home at 4440 N. Clark. The company broke ground in September on a state of the art theatre complex. This promises to be another jewel in the tradition of great Chicago theatre companies and a springboard for our awesome local talent!