Chicago Theater Review: DYNAMITE DIVAS, A TRIBUTE TO WOMEN OF SOUL (Black Ensemble)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 21, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


A tribute to women of soul, Dynamite Divas, despite the title, is not about terrorists with tonsils. A remake and update of a 2001 hit at the Black Ensemble Theater, it’s a very generous showcase for a ton of talent. There’s everything to enjoy in producer/playwright Jackie Taylor’s earnest homage to the biggest African-American torch-song troubadours, big belters and soul-searching megastars from Billie (“God Bless the Child”) to Beyoncé (“Why Not Me”).

Cherise Thomas with cast Preston, Addison, Dawan, McCullough

The somewhat flimsy premise for presenting B.E.T.’s blockbuster balladeers is a world-wide telecast financed by black billionaire Mr. Marcus, purported inventor of email, texting and Botox. This fabulously wealthy fan is paying each diva $2.5 million for a one-day rehearsal and performance at his state-of-the-art Diva Development Lab. Here he puts them through their paces to discover their influences, style, success, religiosity, and essence—and to inspire them with performances by past divas recreated through Mr. M’s teleporting “Assimilator.” The entire telecast, it seems, is meant to climax with the announcement of Mr. M’s latest creation, a highly metaphorical beverage meant to expunge falsity and proclaim the real you.

Daniel Phillips, Kylah FryeThis overly symbolic mise-en-scene wouldn’t matter much, except that director/costumer Rueben D. Echoles’ unctuous plutocrat host takes up too much stage time in an overlong show. The real payoff remains, of course, the sensational divas. Though now in their 70s, they’re here imagined at their heights, magnificently and faithfully recreated on a sprawling and electric stage. Killing the crowd, Shari Addison’s Aretha (“Queen of Soul”) Franklin belts out “Freedom” and “Respect” to beat Robert Reddrick’s beautiful band and to explain her 18 Grammy awards. Rhonda Preston reclaims Nancy Wilson’s caressing vocal magic (“I Can’t Stop Loving You”), every emotion fully released from the notes and lyrics. As the “Empress of Soul,” Gladys Knight is lucky to be impersonated from the inside out by Rashada Dawan, intoning a heartbreaking “Letter Full of Tears” and pensive “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination.” Finally, Melanie McCullough reinvents Robert Flack (and the entire disco era) with her fulsome, present-at-the-creation rendition of “Killing Me Softly.”

Shari AndersonBut, stop, there’s more, including bravura (and uncredited) reprises of Nina Simone’s outspoken “Mississippi Goddam” and her equally progressive “Young, Gifted and Black.” Shavon Hannah delightfully returns us to Bessie Smith’s blues beginnings. Thanks to the busy Assimilator, we get superb simulations of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington (“This Bitter Earth”), Tina Turner (“River Deep Mountain High”), and, making a contemporary cameo appearance, the current phenom known as Beyoncé. You’ll find favorites, classics and undiscovered delights: “You Don’t Know How Glad I Am,” “Baby I Love You,” “The Closer I Get to You,” “Release Me,” “Don’t Make Me Over,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “On My Own Again,” “I’ve Never Been to Me,” “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” “Here’s to Life,” and “Bridge over Troubled Water.”

Echoles (front), Dawan, Preston, Addison, McCullough

Black Ensemble Theater’s dynamite divas detonate at all the right moments, justifying and restoring careers that have lasted over half a century.  They’ll never again assemble on the same stage—except on Clark Street five times a week through January 24. Don’t say you weren’t enticed.

Iessica Seals as Billie Holiday Dawan, Preston, Addison, McCullough

photos by Michael Brosilow

Dynamite Divas, A Tribute to Women of Soul
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 January 24, 2016
for tickets, call (773) 769-4451 or visit Black Ensemble

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit Theatre in Chicago

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