Chicago Theater Review: AT LAST: A TRIBUTE TO ETTA JAMES (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 6, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Casthorz2A Black Ensemble Theater hit in 2005, At Last: A Tribute to Etta James is back in (the pleasure of) business. It’s also updated to reflect the last decade of “The Matriarch of R&B,” who died in 2012 at the age of 73. Known affectionately as “Miss Peaches,” this multi-talented songsmith mastered several styles: Winning Grammys for best jazz vocal performance, Best Contemporary Blues Artist, and lifetime achievement, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her rise and eventual ascension is familiar stuff—the early years with Chess Records, R&B reputation in the 70s, and the self-sustaining success that followed Etta into a new millennium. Rolling Stone ranked her 22 in the top 100 greatest singers of all time.

EttaJamescasthoriz1There is in fact so much to Etta James that author/co-director Jackie Taylor has her played by five accomplished artists, singers who would both reflect the range (jazz, blues, gospel, soul, R&B, rock and roll) and the stages of James’ storied career. Unlike previous B.E.T. offerings, this epic is not chronological. Though it contains revelations of Etta’s bad or mean lovers (except for the husband who went to jail to protect his wife’s reputation), intermittent drug use, and a decline followed by a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s (thanks to her Seven Year Itch album), At Last is billed as a tribute, not a bio. But it’s a troubled one: The fractious Etta quintet squabble over her legacy and testify to her indomitability, her variable weight (nearly 400 pounds at one time), her refusal to take or give blame, her obsession with torch songs, and her ability to re-invent herself and master every genre.


Taylor,Edwards,U-DeenvertThe hostess for the occasion is a certain Ms. Real (BET playwright Rueben Echoles in flamboyant drag). As the name suggests, this irrepressible diva keeps the tribute authentic by snapping her fingers and checking the five James avatars. (Getting control of herself was challenge enough for Etta when she was alive; it’s an easy achievement for her disputatious impersonators.)  Depicting different decades in the same star’s saga (roughly 1954-2012) and testing lungs and hearts to replenish every standard, the troupers—Candace Edwards, Arzula Gardner, Melanie McCullough, Alanna Taylor, and Yahdina Udeen—bring new life to “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Something’s Got a Hold of Me,” “Tell Mama,” “I’d Rather Go  Blind,” Edwards,McCulloughvert“Drowning in My Own Tears,” “Fool That I Am,” “Troubled Times,” “In the Basement” and, appropriately at the end, the title number. (There’s also an Otis Redding medley as the younger and older James’ personae indulge in a musical showdown.) Playing the good and bad guys in the icon’s life (and inspirations for her saddest songs) are Daniel Phillips, Mark Hood, and Adrian Byrd.

Taylor and co-director Daryl D. Brooks keep it fun and make it fast, knowing that more than half the joy is just the music. These stirring once and future hits are perfectly preserved and presented by Robert Reddrick and his very wizard seven-man combo. Echoles proves a stitch or ten as the no-nonsense, tough-loving chanteuse of ceremonies, a sassy, brassy taskmistress who holds his own at belting, crooning, or selling a song. The feel-good affirmations embedded in the dialogue may sometimes seem pat—until the welcome numbers turn wishful thinking into industrial-strength make-believe.


photos by Danny Nicholas

McCullough,Gardner,Taylor.vertAt Last: A Tribute to Etta James
Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center
4450 N. Clark Street
Thurs at 7:30 (except  11/23 and  12/25);
Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
scheduled to end on December 28, 2014
EXTENDED to January 11, 2015
for tickets, call (773) 769-4451
or visit Black Ensemble

for more shows,
visit Theatre in Chicago

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