BWW Reviews: A Tale Of Two Jackies - BET's THE JACKIE WILSON STORY Opens Remarkable Facility
The celebration of the opening of the new facility for Chicago's 34-year-old Black Ensemble Theater, coming on a lonesome stretch of commercial street in western Uptown during a dismal economy, was a remarkable thing last weekend. The $19 million Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, lovely with red fabrics and native stone and an impressive 299-seat mainstage theater, is the peak (or at least, the peak thus far) in the sojourn of this company and its founder, Jackie Taylor. And to complete the celebration, Taylor and company have remounted the most renowned musical in the company's history, "The Jackie Wilson Story," which premiered in 2000, toured and then played at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, making a name performer of its young star, Chester Gregory.
This stage musical (and it is that, indeed) was written and directed by Jackie Taylor, the self-made powerhouse of this company, and, while it is based on the life and music of the late soul/rhythm and blues pioneer, it includes three songs written by Taylor, the opening ensemble number, "Jackie Wilson (Was a Hell of a Man)" and, appropriately enough, two songs sung by the character of Wilson's mother. For Taylor is certainly the mother to her brood of young actors, musicians and designers, many of whom have been with the company for far more than a decade. (And I think Taylor designed the costumes for this production, too.)
Black Ensemble Theater is one of the best examples I have ever encountered of the theatrical school of thought that companies should know their audiences and, in turn, give them what they want. A mostly non-union company built almost exclusively around original musicals based on the lives of great 20th century black entertainers, BET hedges its bet at the box office, but delivers the goods. "The Jackie Wilson Story" certainly is theater, and it is not a narrated concert or a "play with music," though it easily could have been. The characters, with only one or two exceptions, sing only when performing or recording or horsing around with each other. As a Greek chorus of sorts, they sing to the audience. A few lines of dialogue come across as awkward exposition or concert narration, but not many. There are full-blown scenes of dramatic action, tension, character development and the like, all leading to the next time when one of the characters, usually Jackie but not always, sings to us, to his family, managers or fellow entertainers (Frankie Lymon and Lavern Baker are just two of those).
And, while the theatrical bar isn't set quite as high as the contemporary Shakespearean realm that the mainstage theater certainly resembles, the musical bar is set quite high indeed. Some of the ensemble singers don't sound quite like the voices do in their heads (and in the heads of those audience members familiar with these songs), but the internationally high quality of the show's orchestra (tucked above the stage like Juliet and lead by drummer, arranger and recording engineer Robert Reddrick) is unparalleled in Chicago right now. (The six band members even get bios in the program, a testament toTaylor's respect for them.)
While there are two Jackies in play here, there are also two Wilsons for the show's star, Kelvin Roston, Jr., to spar with. Jackie Wilson himself was a Detroit native and a pioneer in the emerging R&B sounds of the 1950s and early 60s, paving the way for Berry Gordy and Motown and fully deserving the nickname "Mr. Excitement" for his super-high vocals and sexy, athletic knee-drops. And Chester Gregory, the Gary,Indiana native who first embodied him at BET a decade ago, is currently on Broadway in "Sister Act" and has played Seaweed in "Hairspray" and the Donkey in "Shrek," winning a BroadwayWorld Chicago Award a year ago for this portrayal of James "Thunder" Early in the most recent tour of "Dreamgirls." Can Roston (who recently appeared in the Court Theater's "Porgy And Bess") measure up to them?
The answer is (as the saying goes in "Evita") a qualified yes. It's likely that no one could ever fully embody the reAl Wilson (who sang on 50 chart singles at a very early age and died at the age of 49 after nine years in a coma), and certainly not six times a week. Matching the reputation that Gregory achieved in the role is also somewhat difficult. But Roston was a very impressive singer during Sunday afternoon's press opening performance, never tiring of impossibly high falsetto notes and working around that notorious passaggio that tenors learn to negotiate in voice lessons. While dance is not his forte, he did indeed execute NINE consecutive split drops near the end of the first act! And his acting was never less than fully committed and engaging, even while on that somewhat worn downward trajectory of sex, drinking and hard drugs that seems to dog so many successful pop singers. Roston even made the unseen (and unproven) connection between the mafia and his record company, Brunswick, believable, and speaks to us from the great beyond, albeit from recorded playback.
The supporting cast of ten triple threats is lead by the beautiful and talented Melanie McCullough as Wilson's first wife, Freida, with Dawn Bless as his mother and RaShawn Thompson as B.B., his childhood friend and manager. The actress known only as Carrie made a mark in severAl Smaller roles. And the songs they all get to sing! Wilson' first solo hit, "Reet Petite" and the song that followed him throughout his career, the Irish "Danny Boy," find their place here alongside "Goody Goody," Gene Pitney's "He's A Rebel," and the closer, "(Your Love Has) Lifted Me Higher," plus an unlisted portion of the Commodores' 1985 hit "Nightshift," a tribute to Wilson and to Marvin Gaye (whose story is next up for BET and who [like Wilson] passed away in 1984).
Wilson's most memorable hits are here as well, "To Be Loved," "A Woman, A Lover, A Friend" and (most effective of all) "Lonely Teardrops," sung by Roston fully in character, fully in voice, fully Jackie (probably a little Taylor mixed in with the Wilson). And it's certainly worth a trip to this remarkable facility, this remarkable ensemble, this remarkable production. If you like vintage soul, you will love "The Jackie Wilson Story."
"The Jackie Wilson Story" runs Wednesday through Sundays at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street, now until January 8, 2012. For tickets ($55-$65), call the box office at 773-769-4451 or visit www.blackensembletheater.com.