Chicago Theater Review: THE JACKIE WILSON STORY (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Dan Zeff on November 22, 2011

in Theater-Chicago

THE JACKIE TAYLOR STORY TAKES PRECEDENCE
OVER THE JACKIE WILSON STORY

Jackie Taylor is a happy lady these days, and everyone with a fondness to Chicagoland theater should rejoice with her. Taylor finally has her new theater, a sumptuous multi-story that is the home of Taylor’s Black Ensemble Theater. The architectural ornament stands just a couple of blocks from the BET’s former home, a grungy basement space in a Hull House outpost.

jackie taylor BET theater

Taylor’s new theater cost $19 million, and she has raised all but $2 million, an astounding achievement in these stark economic times. The building will accommodate a 299-seat main stage, a 150-seat studio theater (set to open early next year), plus classroom space, a rehearsal hall, a dance studio, scene and costume shops, a wardrobe room, seven dressing rooms, a rehearsal room for musicians, abundant lobby space on the main floor and at the balcony level, concession areas, and, crucially, an indoor parking garage.

Black Ensemble Theater presents The Jackie Wilson Story - Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The main stage attempts to retain the intimacy of the old Hull House theater, with the playing area projecting into the audience, who sit on three sides. An elevated platform at the rear of the stage serves as the orchestra pit. The décor avoids frills, likely out of a mix of economic realities and Taylor’s desire to operate a building in which the play will always be the thing, not plush curtains and opulent chandeliers.

Black Ensemble Theater presents The Jackie Wilson Story - Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

Now in its 35th season, Taylor’s artistic agenda remains unchanged. The BET is dedicated to musical surveys of black music – its styles, personalities, and place in African American culture. Upcoming productions in 2012 will feature the music of Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, the Ladies of Soul (Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross), and James Brown.

Black Ensemble Theater presents The Jackie Wilson Story - Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

Taylor chose to open her new theater with a remount of The Jackie Wilson Story, a huge BET hit from 2000. Regrettably, Chester Gregory II isn’t on hand to recreate his dazzling portrait of Jackie Wilson. (Gregory’s success in the role catapulted him onto Broadway and a featured role in Hairspray; he’s currently in Sister Act in New York City and couldn’t be freed up to recreate the starring role.)

Black Ensemble Theater presents The Jackie Wilson Story - Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The BET has cast Kelvin Roston, Jr. as Jackie Wilson, and, for spectators who never saw Gregory’s performance, Roston is more than satisfactory. He looks like Wilson facially and has a similar vocal range. He goes through Wilson’s gymnastic dance moves, but he lacks Gregory’s dynamism and charisma. The show itself runs much too long at nearly 2 ½ hours, and the acting level, rarely a BET strong point, is wildly variable. But these shows pay off on the singing, and there are some fine Black Ensemble Theater presents The Jackie Wilson Story - Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeffvoices in the ensemble, notably Dawn Bless, who plays Wilson’s mother and is on stage primarily to raise the roof with her belting solos. The musical accompaniment, which never disappoints in the BET production, delivers big time with Robert Reddrick leading a swinging jump band.

In truth, the previous BET productions were erratic, with the writing often insecure and the acting skills modest. With its impressive new home, the BET hopefully will raise its level of accomplishment on its stages. There is a vast amount of African American talent in Chicagoland. Just ask patrons of the Victory Gardens Theatre, Court Theatre, and other top tier local companies. The BET has its own pool of performers but it would be nice to see E. Faye Butler and Felicia Fields do a guest turn. With its schedule expanded to six performances a week, the BET should be a showcase for professional musical theater on a level with Drury Lane and the Marriott Theatre. The bricks and mortar are definitely in place.

Black Ensemble Theater presents The Jackie Wilson Story - Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeffphotos by Danny Nicholas

The Jackie Wilson Story
Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center
4450 N. Clark Street
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
ends on January 8, 2012
for tickets, visit Black Ensemble Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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