Chicago Theater Review: SOUNDS SO SWEET (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 20, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Grandstine, the beloved Mississippi matriarch of the Harris clan, has died and gone to her reward. Her many loved ones return to their roots for a “going to heaven” sendoff for the founder of the feast. That’s the premise–and it’s excuse enough–for Sounds So Sweet, a fulsome tribute to one family’s values and to “girl groups” from The Andrews Sisters to Destiny’s Child. Director/author Rueben Echoles’ latest offering from Black Ensemble Theater mixes golden oldies and hot hits. The result is an overlong but warmly wrought salute to ballads and blood. In this family album every snapshot is a song.

“Family comes first,” Grandstine always said. It certainly does here–and you almost wish the blasts from the past were more musical than dramatic. As the aunts, sisters, cousins and one surviving son assemble for the funeral, we get singing flashbacks to how Grandstine, a would-be songstress who sacrificed a career for motherhood, met her manager husband (now also deceased). There’s even more much intrigue in the present tense, with the eldest sister who stayed south to care for Grandstine threatening to sell the family home, a “problem child” daughter getting soused in sojourns to Meridian, an old flame (a white gentleman caller) rekindling an abandoned romance, and a white girl marrying into the family–but only after this girl-group groupie passes a few tests of tenderness, relevance and pop music proficiency.

Amid the family friction, Echoles delivers almost three hours of turning or breaking points and soul-searching situations. A lot of the action soars, much sprawls, and some sags in the scattershot memory-mongering. Happily, there’s a song to cure the crises and bridge any generation gap because, well, music mends. They may not agree on whether Diana or Beyoncé (The Supremes or Destiny’s Child) are the greater diva and trio, but the journey justifies the destination. With Robert Reddrick’s four-member combo pumping up the power, the chartbusters strut their sounds. Heavenly harmonies and sweet sisterly solidarity combine in select sensations from En Vogue, The Chiffons, The Shirelles, The Dixie Cups, The Emotion, and The Pointer Sisters, all proving “We Are Family.”

Yahdina U-Deen as Grandstine anchors the family reunion with a legacy of wisdom, faith and song. Dawn Bless and Rhonda Preston carry her torch as the daughters who connect Chicago to Mississippi and the past to the present. The twelve other singer-actors get tightly together and make vibrant work of standards such as “Mr. Lee,” “Chapel of Love, “Yesterday,” “Tell Him,” “You Brought the Sunshine,” and “He’s So Fine.” It’s wonderful how effortlessly these once and future hits chronicle the Harrises’ loves and losses. You feel the love in the notes. And, of course, it sounds so sweet.

Sounds So Sweet
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 May 31, 2013
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Ticketmaster

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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