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: Nothin’ But The Blues (Black Ensemble Theatre)

Lifted by the Blues

 

Nothin-But-The-Blues-emsemble

 
The Black Ensemble Theatre presents
   
Nothin’ But the Blues
  
Written by Joe Plummer
Directed by
Jackie Taylor and Daryl Brooks
at
Black Ensemble Theatre, 4520 N. Beacon (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $45   |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Let me take you on a journey to the not so distant past. Take a step into the dark glass brick lounges of the South and West sides of Chicago. The ladies are dressed like they are entered in a pageant and the gentlemen are exquisitely groomed in a rainbow of colors not seen on Wall Street. The Black Ensemble Theater brings this  world vividly to life in Nothin’ But the Blues. This glorious musical is a tribute to the legendary Theresa’s Lounge that operated out of a basement from 1954 until 1983.

 Lawrence Williams and Rhonda Preston in "Nothin' But the Blues" at BETThe cast parades out singing an original song by Black Ensemble founder Jackie Taylor blended in with snippets from blues classics immediately recognizable by the audience. They are stock characters familiar if you have seen ‘chitlin circuit’ comics or Oscar Micheaux revivals with all Black casts. The chitlin’ circuit was where Black comics and singers toured through the South confined to juke joints and establishments in the Colored Only areas. Some of the world’s greatest music and performers cut their teeth on the circuit and rarely received proper recognition while still living.

There is the bar room sage named Washburn played by Rick Stone. He plays the old guy sitting in the corner who sees everything and says little. Mr. Stone is a stately older gentleman who I remember from the classic 70’s movie “Cooley High”.

He sings several numbers with suave facial exaggerations distinct to the emotions of the blues. He moves his body in a fluid and comical manner while singing of covert love and shenanigans in “Back Door Man”. He raises the subject matter above the raunchy content while keeping the sly fun going.

Rhonda Preston plays Theresa Needham with sass and wit. Ms. Preston has a powerhouse voice and whip smart comic timing as Mrs. Needham, who kept the Lounge and the music going for thirty years against the odds. History tells of Theresa’s famous puppet that she kept behind the bar that hid a gun in case things got out of hand. Ms. Preston looks at home behind the bar and projects the motherly tough love that comes to be expected of lady saloonkeepers. She will pour you a stiff drink and kick your butt to the curb while singing some gutbucket blues on Blue Mondays Open Mike at the Lounge. She is hilarious to watch and will have you stomping your feet with her voice.

Trinity Murdock plays the role of the doorman Will with a perfect weariness and touch of lecherous flair when the lovely ladies enter the Lounge. There is a fine exchange between Mr. Murdock and Candace C. Edwards as the hot bar hussy Rolanda. He lusts but she pointedly tells him that he is too old for the kind of fun she is out to have. Ms. Edwards’ Rolanda is a throwback to the sirens of the 40’s. She teases but never reaches the sleaze factor that so many actresses fall into these days. The character’s goodies are a mystery even wrapped in a slinky blue dress.

 

Nothin-But-The-Blues-Rhonda-Preston Nothin-But-The-Blues-Stone-Murdock
Nothin-But-The-Blues-Lyle-Miller2 Nothin-But-The-Blues-Noreen-Starks2 Nothin-But-The-Blues-Reddrick-Murdock

The biggest laughs come from the exchanges between Lyle Miller as Lewis the Drunk and Ms. Preston. Miller brings the stumbling neighborhood drunk to comical life. He tries to wheedle a bar tab and hit on the ladies despite his sweaty disheveled visage. Theresa pours his drinks but keeps him in check with stinging barbs. He has a rather predictable storyline with Robin Beaman as Flo – another well-dressed barfly. Ms. Beaman is a fine singer and has a heart-wrenching role as the woman who lost her love and listens to the blues for a cure.

A very handsome and muscular Kelvin Rolston Jr. plays the neighborhood mailman. He drops in after work to have a drink and engage in some canoodling with Rolanda until his winsome and apparently devout wife discovers his subterfuge. Noreen Starks is a delight as Mrs. Tate, the mailman’s wife. She turns the church lady image on its head with a fiery rendition of “You Can Have My Husband But Don’t Mess With My Man”. It was a fun climactic moment when she confronts Rolanda about her wanton ways with Mr. Tate. She lets everyone know that wives are getting their share too.

The most pleasant surprise of the evening came from Lawrence Williams as “The Kid”. He projects innocence with his youthful eagerness and jangly energy but when  he steps up to the microphone, he sings with the loneliness and sadness of a man decades older. It is Mr. Williams theatrical debut and he has star quality in his voice and acting.

Nothing-But-The-Blues (Edwards-Preston-Miller)Some of the plot lines in Nothin’ But The Blues are predictable and a little too neatly tied up. That is a risk that comes with portraying a historical figure and an era when ‘chitlin circuit’ was the norm. However, that is also what is so comforting and wonderful about this show. It is authentic with the music and the vibe of Theresa’s Lounge – or any of the neighborhood places where the wet glasses “sing” when stacked on the bar mat. Black Ensemble is known for bringing the stories of the unsung to life with great flair and this is another bulls-eye for them. It needs to be said many times where the roots of rock and roll came from because time always rewrites history. The great blues lounges and taverns have given way to people with deeper pockets and a commercialized sound. It is wonderful to be reminded that Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Stevie Ray Vaughn sat in Theresa’s before they took their sounds to the world.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fabulous set design by Carl Ulaszek. It is spot on with the photo of Dr. King amidst the glasses and bottles just like he was on the walls of countless Black people back in the day. There is an appropriately greenish jar of pickled eggs for the classic ‘working man’s breakfast – a shot, a stein, and a pickled egg. The signs and the beautiful Formica bar put a little lump in my throat for times gone by. BET founder Jackie Taylor designed the gorgeous costumes. Ms. Taylor is a force of nature that has brought the Ensemble to national recognition. She scores big with the colorful and outrageous costumes. Black people dressed to the nines in the days of Theresa’s and places like the Roberts 500 Club. Everything matched down to the shoes. It brings joy to see the fedora making a return!

One piece of friendly advice – when you go to Nothin’ But the Blues, be sure to bring your toe tapping shoes!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Nothin’ But The Blues plays on Saturdays at 8:00 and Sundays at 3:00 through August 29th at the Black Ensemble Theater 4520 N. Beacon in Chicago. Call 773-769-4451 or visit www.blackensembletheater.org

L-ro-R: Trinity Murdock, Rhonda Preston and Rick Stone

 

           

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