Chicago Theater Review: CHICAGO’S GOLDEN SOUL (A 60’S REVIEW) (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 10, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

IT DOESN’T GET MORE GOLDEN THAN THIS

Hot stuff on a cold night! Just released as a companion piece to Black Ensemble Theater’s runaway hit It’s All-Right to Have a Good Time: The Story of Curtis Mayfield, Chicago’s Golden Soul (A 60’s Review) provides a deliriously happy musical context for its sister show. Also produced, directed and written by the unstoppable Jackie Taylor (who ComEd honored on Feb. 1 as a “Neighborhood Hero”), this jump-for-joy, 140-minute compilation pays tribute to the artists who made Chicago their field of dreams—and the record companies that turned inspiration into vinyl. They found the gold in soul and went gold in the process.

Cecil Jones, Brian Nelson, Lawrence Williams and David L. Simmons as The Impressions in CHICAGO'S GOLDEN SOUL (A 60’S REVUE) at Black Ensemble Theater.All the luminaries of Chi-town’s sassy 60s and sizzling 70s are present and accounted for: Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Gene Chandler, Major Lance, The Impressions, Betty Everett, Barbara Aklin, Etta James, and especially the once-legendary Chi Lites (“Have You Seen Her” brought back a ton of memories). Against a backdrop of giant 78 rpm records, a monitor depicts the artists’ photos before the 10 performers and eight musicians recreate the originals with stunning accuracy.

Lawrence Williams sings “Summertime” in CHICAGO'S GOLDEN SOUL (A 60’S REVUE) at Black Ensemble Theater.These aren’t just groovy songs to stand and sing. This is Soul Train territory and B.E.T.’s romping standards demand to be danced: the Twist and the (lesser known) Twine, the self-describing “Kill the Roach,” the Flea, the Barracuda, Alvin’s Boogaloo, the funky Monkey, the literal-minded Go-Go Gorilla, and the throwback sensation the Watusi. It’s not surprising that the audience joins in, clapping, stomping, even performing on stage. (On opening night a white couple left their seats to dance in the back.) You can feel the galvanic shocks of recognition when a song returns, trailing indelible memories in audience members who, suddenly and briefly, are very young again. (We’re talking half a century or more…)

Brian Nelson as Alvin Cash in CHICAGO'S GOLDEN SOUL (A 60’S REVUE) at Black Ensemble Theater.In her Valentine to solid gold oldies, Taylor puts this Chicago renaissance (now just a memory of hit-making trend-setters) in perspective: The Northern migration of blacks to Chicago brought a Southern blues that, preserved and inspired by such local labels as Chess Records, mellowed and sizzled into R&B. Michigan Avenue became known as “Record Row.” The rest is musical history.

As the program moves from tributes to the ladies, the record labels, and a roll call of greatest hits, it’s also a showcase for Taylor’s impeccable ensemble, coached to glory by musical director Robert Reddrick. They pull the stops out of 36 lesser-known or much beloved signature songs, with everyone so good that nobody gets singled out. These include Cecil Jones (Younger Curtis Mayfield), David Simmons (Older Jerry Butler), Lawrence Williams (Younger Jerry Butler), Brian Nelson (Fred Cash of The Impressions) and Donald Manuel (Sam Gooden of The Impressions), as well as Casey Hayes, Lyle Miller, Jos N. Banks, Mark Hood, Alanna Taylor, Katrina Richardson, Ereatha McCullough, Byron Willis and Christina Harper. They couldn’t have more fun or share it more completely.

The songs sing for themselves. It’s not enough to name them to suggest how faithfully they’re recaptured. But I will. “Rescue Me,” “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “It’s All Over Casanova,” “Oh Girl,” “Shake a Tail Feather,” “Let It Be Me,” and the most combustible “Summertime” you ever heard.

Here you don’t just stroll down Memory Lane. You bounce, jump, skip and twirl your way to the best good time Clark Street offers from Rogers Park to downtown.

The cast performing the Go-Go-Gorilla in CHICAGO'S GOLDEN SOUL (A 60’S REVUE) at Black Ensemble Theater.

photos by Danny Nicholas

Chicago’s Golden Soul (A 60’s Review)
Black Ensemble Theater
Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street
scheduled to end on March 29, 2014
for tickets call 773-769-4451 or visit www.blackensembletheater.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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