Chicago Theater Review: THE MARVELOUS MARVELETTES (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 26, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

THE OTHER DREAMGIRLS

Black Ensemble Theater’s latest summer-long tribute is to a girls group who never quite achieved escape velocity to lasting fame. Reginald Williams’ faithful chronicle of the rise and fall of the marvelous Marvelettes is a happy excuse to revisit a jukebox full of sassy songs, perfectly reinvented by director Rueben D. Echoles. It also offers an edifying lesson in how these 3 to 5 dreamgirls (their numbers varied with their fortunes) encountered their own nightmares.

Katrina Richard as Geroreanna, Kylah Frye at Juanita, Melanie McCullough as Gladys, Christina Harper as Katherine and Alanna Taylor as Wanda in the World Premiere of THE MARVELOUS MARVELETTES at Black Ensemble Theater.

Motown Records didn’t just demand excessive profits from the stars they launched; control and invent song credits; and steal royalties: Detroit mogul Berry Gordy (Robert N. Isaac) could also find talent and shape their sound to the top of the charts. The arrival of a sizzling quintet, straight out of a high-school glee club in neighboring Inkster, Michigan, sparked an early success for the recording giant. It also set the standard for the Supremes (who would later outshine them).

Deanna Reed-Foster as Older Katherine and Rhonda Preston as Older Juanita in the World Premiere of THE MARVELOUS MARVELETTES at Black Ensemble Theater.

From 1960 to 1970 (the same duration as the Beatles), Gladys Horton, Katharine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart, and Georgia Dobbins paid their dues as “million sellers” of hits like “Don’t Mess with Bill, “Beachwood 45789,” “Look in My Eyes,” “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game,” “My Baby Must Be a Magician” (a big 1966 comeback song), and their own original and initial chart-buster “Please Mr. Postman.” Happily, last year the Marvelettes (or their memories) entered the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Katrina Richard as Georgeanna, Marquecia Jordan as Georgia, Melanie McCullough as Gladys, Kylah Frye as Juanita and Christina Harper as Katherine in the World Premiere of THE MARVELOUS MARVELETTES at Black Ensemble Theater.

Their decade in the limelight was never as happy as the songs they got from Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. As well as grabbing their earnings, copywriting their name, and restricting their gigs, Motown failed to promote them adequately or even get them tutors after they dropped out of high school.

Ereatha McCullogh as Mrs. Sharpley and Rober N. Isaac as Berry Gordy in the World Premiere of THE MARVELOUS MARVELETTES at Black Ensemble Theater.

It’s no surprise that, tired of touring and losing her childhood, Juanita had a nervous breakdown and left in 1963. The disruptive and unreliable Wanda Rogers replaced Georgeanna, their champion and unofficial leader. Gladys left in 1965 to care for a child with cerebral palsy. Georgeanna died of lupus and sickle cell anemia at the age of 36. Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes 0f the Broken Hearted” could easily apply to them.

Alanna Taylor as Wanda in the World Premiere of THE MARVELOUS MARVELETTES at Black Ensemble Theater.It’s all here in this generous and seemingly inexhaustible, two-hour salute to the “other Supremes.” Working with a more intimate band than usual (just four musicians), music director Robert Reddrick fully applies his time-traveling talent for authenticity to origins and fidelity to style. The rest is a roller coaster of exposition, with the young ladies fondly remembered by their older selves (Rhonda Preston and Deanna Reedd-Foster) and their much-motivating high school counselor (Ereatha McCullough).

The Marvelettes—Melanie McCullough as maternal Gladys, Alanna Taylor as bad-girl Wanda, Kylah Frye as unstable Juanita, Christina Harper as steady Katherine, and Katrina D. Richard as literally sickening Georgeanna—shine as they sing “When You’re Young (And in Love),” “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” and “Locking up My Heart.” We also get salutes to Ruffin (Daniel Phillips) and to Martha and the Vandellas (“Heatwave”).

Heat wave indeed. It’s a good thing the B.E.T. venue is fully air conditioned. Because from here to just past Labor Day it’s cooking with combustile nostalgia.

Christina Harper as Katherine, Melanie McCullough as Gladys and Alanna Taylor as Wanda in the World Premiere of THE MARVELOUS MARVELETTES at Black Ensemble Theater.

photos by Danny Nicholas

Robert N. Isaac as Berry Gordy in the World Premiere of THE MARVELOUS MARVELETTES at Black Ensemble Theater.The Marvelous Marvelettes
Black Ensemble Theater
Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center
4450 N. Clark Street
Friday at 8:00; Sat at 3:00 and 8:00; Sun at 3:00
scheduled to end on September 7, 2014
for tickets, call (773) 769-4451
or visit www.blackensemble.org

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

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