Where: Black Ensemble Theater (BET) Cultural Center,
4450 N. Clark St.
When: through Jan. 27, 2019
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Here are ten things to know about “Women of Soul (With a Tribute to the Queen)” at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center”
- The nine women performers are all outstanding, with powerhouse voices and very different styles. They are Cynthia F. Carter, Robin DaSilva, Jerica Exum, Hannah Efsits, Colleen Perry, Rhonda Preston, Jessica Seals, Aerial Williams and Jayla Williams-Craig. The one man — Dwight Neal, who plays multiple roles — isn’t bad, either.
- The women portray dozens of singers from Mahalia Jackson to Janet Jackson and beyond. They include icons of gospel, blues, disco, soul and a whole lot more. Etta James, Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston, Mavis Staples, Big Mama Thornton, Natalie Cole, Amy Winehouse, Adele and, of course, Aretha Franklin, “the Queen” who died recently, are just a few of those represented. There are several, such as Jill Scott, I’ve never heard of.
- In some cases, the performances are full-blown impersonations preceded by a bit of narrative about the life of the artist and accompanied by projections (designed by Aaron Quick) of her, often both young and older. These are straightforward and generally informative.
- Little scenes of the diva and, typically, a man in her life supplement some of the songs. For example, we see Etta James in her dressing room letting her man know she saw him kissing another woman and that she didn’t like it at all. These tend to be rather lame.
- BET Associate Director Daryl D. Brooks, who wrote and directed the show, seems to assume that the audience will know who all these women are. An opening medley sung by Rhonda Preston and Cynthia F. Carter consists of snippets, and neither the songs nor the singers are identified. The same is true of the “Old School/New School Battle” that begins the second act.
- The band, on an upstage platform high above the action, consists of Robert Reddrick (drums), Adam Sherod (keyboards), Dolpha S. Fowler Jr. (second keyboard), Mark Miller (bass), and Gary Baker (guitar). I don’t know whether to blame musical director Reddrick or sound designer David Samba or both, but the music is very loud. This forces the singers to really belt it out from the start of each song, which isn’t always the best approach. The few exceptions where the singers have an opportunity to build slowly or offer nuances are topnotch, among them Mahalia’s first number and Whitney’s song. On the other hand, the band totally drowns out Janet Jackson, though her dance moves (choreographed by Chris Carter) are terrific.
- The printed program is not nearly as useful as it could or should be. It has a song list with the writers and publishers of the songs, but it fails to include the names of the artists who performed them originally or of the actors playing them in the show. The headshots of the actors are so tiny, I hesitate to try to identify them for fear of making mistakes, except to say that I think DaSilva is the magnificent Mahalia.
- The evening closes with the Aretha Medley, which is an ensemble number. The songs aren’t listed, but the last is a rousing version of Carole King’s “Natural Woman,” which seems fitting.
- Kudos go to costume and wig designer Reuben D. Echoles for scores of stunning gowns (many shimmering with sequins) and wigs. Some of them are totally transformative, often with a humorous touch, like the outsize wig for Amy Winehouse.
- BET opened its new cultural center in 2011, and it’s a delight. The main theater has good rises and sight lines, and the staffers go out of their way to be welcoming and helpful. Almost all the shows are in a similar vein: uplifting tributes to performers who overcame significant hardships and fought personal demons to achieve fame.