REVIEW: Those Sensations Soulful 60s (Black Ensemble)

 

Heart and Sensation Soul

 

(from left): David Simmons, Byron Willis, Kenny Davis, Theo Huff, RaShawn Thompson - photo by Ken Simmons

   
Black Ensemble Theater presents
   
Those Sensational Soulful 60’s
   
Imagined and Directed by Jackie Taylor
at Kennedy King College, 740 W. 63rd (map)
through September 26th  |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Take a ride back in time with me. Sit in front of your grandmother’s television or at the kitchen table with the radio tuned to WVON circa 1966 and let the music take over. Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is a gorgeously produced time capsule of the music of many lifetimes. Whether you picked up music from the Ed Sullivan Show on Sundays or listened to the far end side of the radio dial, this show is a delightful and emotional ride.

Chic Rogers in "Those Sensational Soulful ‘60s" - Photo by Ken Simmons Black Ensemble Theater is known for great musical productions with virtuosity in the singing and a polished house orchestra. The space at Kennedy King College provided the perfect setting for this glittering tribute to the soul revues that used to travel the country in theaters like the Apollo and Chicago’s own Regal. A shimmering cyc wall of tinsel and stars hangs behind the bandstand and two simple platforms sat on either side of the stage. The nine singers for this production blasted onto the stage in beautifully tailored costumes and wigs that spoke to the times of the music. All members of the ensemble cast possess powerhouse voices that sometimes overshadow the people to which they pay tribute.

Imitation of singers is a tricky thing. It can come off as performing at your aunt’s barbeque at mother’s request. Thank goodness that is not the case in this revue. Each of the singers has an impressive resume in musicals and as professional singers. The range is from gospel to current R&B with an impressive pedigree in soul and jazz for each singer.

The show is a soul lover’s delight of superstars doing their greatest hits with just enough biographical information added. The narration never becomes preachy or indulgent but rather serves to add emotional weight to the music. From the first note of Sam Cooke’s ‘Change is Gonna Come’, I felt a swell in my heart and a wave of nostalgia. Cooke came out of the church on the West Side and his funeral was held on the South Side to a crowd of thousands of grieving fans. It was a story told around the living room while I was being seen and not heard as a child.

Most of the music comes from the Motown and Atlantic labels from which other than Stax and Mercury produced the greatest amount of Black entertainment back in the day. There are notable exceptions in the revue that raised the questions ‘what is Soul music’ and ‘who sings it?’ This made for some amusing banter and was answered by a smashing rendition of Frank Sinatra’s ‘That’s Life’ sung by Rashawn Thompson. It was followed by a virtuoso ‘Mack the Knife’ by Marilyn Grimes. Ms. Grimes has played Ella Fitzgerald in another BET production. She does mighty justice to the live recording where Ms. Fitzgerald imitates her friend Lois Armstrong and banters with the band over mangling the words with perfect improvisation and scat singing.

Chick Rogers does a spot on imitation of Patti LaBelle’s over the top stage persona with ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. That song can be a minefield of maudlin as witnessed on how many amateur competitions. A comic moment was made of Ms. Roger’s diminutive size as she took on Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’. It is quite possible that every cell of Chick Rogers is music. She took me back to a summer in Oakland with a cousin making up a dance to that very song.

Stephanie Crystal sang a perfect ‘Release Me’ by Esther Phillips that was not in huge rotation on regular radio and also crossed over into the more country style of music. Ms. Phillips had a very distinctive nasal timbre that is perfectly nuanced by Ms. Crystal. She also does a stellar job of Nancy Wilson’s ‘How Glad I Am’.

Theo Huff sings in BET's "Those Sensational Soulful ‘60s" - Photo by Ken Simmons Ensemble member Melanie McCullough is quite funny as she takes on the most interesting wig choices and does a darkly funny Tina Turner. Fellow cast mate David Simmons glowers in the background as Ike Turner on ‘Proud Mary’. She does the perfect wig-shaking dance in stilettos and then quavers an ‘okay Ike’ as she scampers off of the stage. Mr. Simmons along with Kevin Roston, Theo Huff, and Rashawn Thompson pay perfect tribute to the male groups of Motown. They recreate the cool choreography of The Tempations, The Four Tops, and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles as well as the smooth perfect harmonies of each group. It was like watching a grainy black and white television rerun that comes to life in color.

It was interesting to hear Ms. McCullough sing as Diana Ross. Her voice is way more soulful and powerful than Ms. Ross’ thin voice. She did a great visual imitation but would blow Miss Ross out of the water in a one-on-one. I cannot recall any live versions of ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Redding as he tragically died three days after recording the song. The version in this show gave me a wistful reminder of what a great talent died in that plane crash now decades ago.

You will no doubt recognize a favorite song; remember dance steps, or Saturday’s watching Soul Train or American Bandstand. A talented cast and band lovingly and respectfully recall this music. The costumes of the era are perfect and bring to mind that those ladies just sang the music. They didn’t need to gyrate in choreographed histrionics –except for Tina Turner that is her trademark. I think it was because the costumes weigh so much with all the rhinestones and glitter not to mention the weight of the wigs. This was an era of great taste and classic costumes. There were no peek-a-boo moments while climbing out of taxis.

It was an interesting ride back from 63rd and Halsted. I remember the landscape as full and vibrant with the record shops that would play a 45 for you before you purchased it. There seemed to be the sounds of soul music everywhere. Now it is a desolate and blighted landscape from seen from the windows of the Green Line El. I could still hear the music playing in my head with a new view that is haunting all on its own.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
  

Those Sensational Soulful 60’s runs Fridays and Saturday at 8:00PM and Sundays at 3:00PM through September 26th only. It is a short run but worth the travel. For more information check www.blackensembletheater.org  Be aware that travel directions to Kennedy King College are incorrect on Google CTA Direction. Take the Green Line to 63rd and Halsted not the Red Line to 69th and the Ryan. There is a giant gravel pit where the old college was if you follow the old directions and apparently only one cab on that long empty stretch which we were lucky enough to catch!

   
     

Reprising the talented ensemble cast of Those Sensational Soulful ‘60s will be Stephanie Crystal, Kenny Davis, Marylin Grimes, Theo Huff, Melanie McCullough, Delvin Roston, Jr., Chick Rodgers, Davis Simmons and Rashawn Thompson. The band, led by Music Director Robert Reddrick, includes Mark Moultrip on piano, Herb Walkter on guitar, Tracy Anita Baker on bass, Bill McFarland on trombone, Hank Ford on saxophone, and Paul Howard on trumpet.

REVIEW: My Brother’s Keeper (Black Ensemble Theater)

BET’s talented tappers pay tribute to the legendary Nicholas Brothers

 

My Brother's Keeper - CAST

 
Black Ensemble Theater, Uptown, presents
 
My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers
 
By Rueben D. Echoles
Directed by
Jackie Taylor
BE Theater, 4520 N. Beacon
(map)
Through May 16 (more info)
 
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The Nicholas Brothers were, if not the best known, simply the best dance team of the 20th century. With astonishing splits, seemingly effortless leaps and fabulous footwork, the brothers tapped their way through scores of famous nightclubs, a half dozen motion pictures and performances before nine presidents of the United States s Keeper - Jessica Moore, Kylah Frye, Carrieand several crowned heads of Europe, in a career that spanned nearly seven decades.

Black Ensemble Theater’s world premiere biographical tribute, My Brother’s Keeper, follows the company’s familiar documentary/revue style, tracing the brothers from childhood to death with a straightforward narrative penned by Rueben D. Echoles.

What it lacks in dramatic tension and stirring dialogue, the show more than makes up for in beautifully executed music and dance numbers, arranged by Thomas ‘Tom Tom 84’ Washington and choreographed by Echoles. Drummer and Musical Director Robert Reddrick leads a swinging eight-piece jazz band, featuring Washington on horns, Mark Moultrup on keyboards, Herb Walker on guitar, Tracey Anita Baker on bass, Bill McFarland on trombone, Hank Ford on sax and Paul Howard on trumpet.

Echoles’ choreography streamlines famous Nicholas Brothers routines, including a brief homage to the legendary leapfrogging, stair-step splits from the 1943 film Stormy Weather. The buttery-voiced Rashawn Thompson and elastic Echoles portray Fayard and Harold Nicholas with huge talent on all levels — as actors, singers and dancers. You rarely see performances like this nowadays. While they aren’t the incomparable Nicholas Brothers — no one could be — they give us as close a re-creation as you’re likely to see.

s Keeper - Ruben Echoles, Kylah Frye, RaShawn Thompson s Keeper - RaShawn Thompson, Ruben Echoles 2
My Brother's Keeper - Dawn Mitchell My Brother's Keeper - RaShawn Thompson My Brother's Keeper - Melanie McCullough

The sons of drummer and band leader Ulysses Nicholas (a sensitive performance by Donald Barnes) and his pianist wife, Viola (sweetly played by Dawn Bless), the Nicholas boys grew up in the wings of the vaudeville stage where their parents performed, watching the likes of singers such as Big Maybelle (as whom Rhonda Preston provides a twanging solo) and dancers including Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Young Fayard is fascinated by the hoofers and soon begins choreographing his own routines. When his younger sister, Dorothy (Shakila), refuses to practice with him anymore, he turns to their little brother, who turns out to have more than what it takes.

s Keeper - Kylah Frye, RaShawn Thompson The boys became dedicated to each other and to their art, and began a professional dancing career in the 1930s, when Fayard was 18 and his younger brother 11. They continued performing together till Harold’s death in 2000.

Tapped by Duke Ellington to perform at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club, the brothers were the first black performers to be allowed to mingle with club’s all-white audiences. They also got a helping hand from bandleader Cab Calloway (some nice jiving from Daryl Brooks).

Through their tremendous talent, the brothers broke other color barriers, and had an enormously successful career that took them to Hollywood and overseas. Their personal lives were stormy, however. Fayard’s marriage fell apart when his wife (Melanie McCullough) tired of playing second fiddle to his brother, his dancing and — not mentioned in this show — his philandering. Harold married actress Dorothy Dandridge (an evocative performance by Kylah Williams), but the marriage, troubled from the outset, foundered after their daughter was born with brain damage.

The cast also feature the talents of Allison McCorkle,Carrie, Jessica Moore, Christopher Kudiacz, Cory Wright and Michael Bartlett who ably impersonates Bojangles Robinson and Michael Jackson.

My Brother’s Keeper provides a wonderful look back at what entertainment used to be.

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

 

 

The Nicholas Brothers with Cab Calloway in Stormy Weather, 1943 

 

The Nicholas Brothers with Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, 1977