Chicago Theater Review: THE MARVIN GAYE STORY (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Dan Zeff on May 21, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


The tortured elements in the life of the great rhythm and blues artist Marvin Gaye would be fascinating fodder for a powerfully tragic stage play. Either that, or bypass his story, concentrating instead on the ample material Gaye left behind for a terrific musical revue. The Black Ensemble Theater premiere of The Marvin Gaye Story moves between each option. The winner, as in so many previous BET productions, is the music, while the erratic storytelling comes in a distant second.

Gaye was one of the Motown immortals, his “What’s Going On” concept album is a landmark in the history of modern popular music. But he was also a man afflicted with demons, all of them, according to the show, emerging from Marvin’s tortured relationship with his father, Marvin Gaye, Sr., portrayed as an abusive psychotic. The father killed Marvin a day before the son’s 45th birthday in 1987; friends later said that Gaye giving his father the gun was “a premeditated suicide,” as the singer had made failed suicide attempts in the past.

Dan Zeff Chicago Review of The Marvin Gaye Story at BETThe show begins with a montage of projected newspaper headlines announcing Marvin’s gunshot death at the hands of his father. Then instead of building on the momentum of that shocking opening, the production shifts to an instrumental number by the fine rhythm and blues band looking down on the action from above and at the rear of the stage. From that point on, the evening alternates between incidents from Marvin’s life and musical numbers associated with him without establishing much connection between the book and the music.

We first meet Marvin as a member of a backup doo-wop singing group. He then sets out on a solo career, first as a songwriter. Marvin starts performing and becomes one of the stars of the Motown recording empire. But the higher Marvin rises, the more his demons take over. He turns into a womanizer and becomes addicted to cocaine. He marries a woman 17 years his senior, a marriage that causes him continuous grief, most of it his own making. He also suffers a devastating emotional loss with the death of his singing partner Tammi Terrell, who died from a brain tumor at the age of 24.

Marvin plummets into self-destruction late in his life, ironically assuming many of his father’s malignant traits. The script by Jackie Taylor (who also directs) strongly suggests a continuum of physical abuse handed down from Marvin’s grandfather through his father and finally to Marvin himself. We only get glimpses of the relationship between Marvin and his father, mostly reinforcing the father as an unstable monster. We see much more of Marvin’s mother Alberta, a long-suffering woman who endures her husband’s savagery in order to protect her children. The show springs Marvin’s violent death on the audience with virtually no preparation. Instead of exploring the psychological inferno that exploded with Marvin’s death, we get a brief confrontational scene following by a long, operatic lamentation by Alberta.

Dan Zeff Chicago Review of The Marvin Gaye Story at BETAt the end of the show Marvin comes back from the dead to urge the audience to practice tolerance and reconciliation, nice thoughts but a letdown for the audience after the intensity of the previous scenes. And instead of examining Marvin’s emotional and psychical decline late in the show, the evening turns into a musical revue, with Marvin romantically playing to the audience, kissing one woman after another in the front row. The audience loved it, but the songs stopped the narrative in its tracks just when Marvin had reached critical mass mentally and emotionally.

The show’s 15 musical selections include only six composed by Gaye, omitting such hits as “Mercy Mercy Me,” “Got to Give It Up,” “Inner City Blues,” and especially “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You).” The show concentrates on Gaye’s smooth, romantic side but his social criticism may be his most lasting contribution to American pop culture and that’s in too short supply at the BET. The musical accompaniment is always an ornament to what’s happening on stage, but musical director/drummer Robert Reddrick leads the company’s stomping R&B band perfectly.

Rashawn Thompson gives the demanding role of Marin Gaye a valiant try. Thompson is most successful in the mellow Barry White side of Gaye’s music. Thompson delivers a convincing portrayal of Gaye’s descent into insecurity, bitterness, paranoia, and confusion, but the script doesn’t give the audience much insight into what triggered Gaye’s decline. We presume it’s his hatred of his father, but more probing would strengthen the storyline.

Dan Zeff Chicago Review of The Marvin Gaye Story at BETYahdina U-Deen has her show stopping moments as the mother caught in the crossfire between her demonic husband and her resentful son. It’s an emotional role that provides U-Deen with ample opportunity to show off her vocal chops. No disrespect is meant to U-Deen’s acting and singing intensity to wish that some of her character’s stage time be transferred to her husband, a complex figure we barely get to know.

The remainder of the large cast is fine, many in multiple roles. Rueben Echoles is excellent as Berry Gordy, the Motown chief trying desperately to keep his star performer under control. Lawrence Williams is good as Marvin’s brother Frankie and Melanie McCullough makes a brief but striking appearance as Tammi Terrell. The design team is Denise Karczewski (lights), Carl Ulaszek (set), Les Spires and Mike Pierce (sound), and Mike Tutaj (projection design).

photos by Danny Nicholas

The Marvin Gaye 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 July 29, 2012
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Ticketmaster

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago


Misha Alexander June 4, 2016 at 3:25 pm

I enjoyed reading that review but if left me wondering if there is a sizable amount of profanity included in the language. For instance, years ago we saw the Jackie Wilson story there and the acting/singing/dancing were incredible but there was a lot of raw language. If it was a movie what rating would you give it? Thank you!

Dan Zeff June 5, 2016 at 7:02 am

Thank you for your query, though it seems a long time has passed to raise a question. I think in movie rating terms I would put it at an R rating, not so much for the language as for the intensity of some of the dramatic situations. It was a terrific production and a terrific starring performance but not perhaps for viewers younger than the middle teens. Still, each spectator is different and the rewards of the show would transcend any “adult’ subject matter unless the viewer was particularly sensitive.

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