Los Angeles Theater Review: BORN FOR THIS (The Broad Stage in Santa Monica)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on July 21, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


BeBe Winans was on-hand to enjoy a triumphant opening night for his coming-of-age stage musical Born For This, that takes him and his sister CeCe from young adulthood through several decades of their lives and legendary careers. The star-studded audience included Stevie Wonder, Cicely Tyson, Debbie Allen, Sidney Poitier, Loretta Devine, Berry Gordy, and Suzanne de Passe, among many more giants of the entertainment world. Yet the overwhelming feeling that still resonates on the morning after has little to do with show business, and everything to do with love. I’m still basking in the all-embracing miracle of the Winans family’s profound love—for one another, and seemingly, for all of us.

The voices are glorious. That isn’t surprising. The family is a glittering, multi-generational collection of award-winning singers and musicians with a gift that comes either from God, as they believe with all their hearts, or from some other indefinable yet universal force that is the best of what it means to be human. What is a surprise though, is the deeply emotional, culturally rich underpinnings of the journey. It’s a lot more than you usually get from jukebox musicals, and Born For This aims for something much more satisfying: An open-ended odyssey of what it is to balance spirituality, family, success, and loyalty. Not out of duty, but out of joy.

Another miracle comes in the performances of Juan Winans as BeBe and Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe. The fact that they are BeBe and CeCe’s real-life nephew and niece has both nothing and everything to do with how successfully they own the stage. Juan is a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter. Deborah Joy co-stars on OWN’s original series Greenleaf and starred in the Angela Bassett directed film Whitney. They are stars, whatever their last names. Still, the family connection adds both emotional impact and vocal richness. It’s impossible not to feel the power of that family connection, which is also likely part of their astonishing vocal blend that goes beyond technical ability.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with standout performances from Kiandra Richardson as Whitney Houston, and Alison Whitehurst as BeBe’s white almost-girlfriend, Penny; as well as from the terrific Brad Raymond, Jonathan Burke, J. Daughtry, and Desmond Sean Ellington as Ronald, Michael, Marvin, and Carvin Winans (respectively), BeBe and CeCe’s older brothers who comprise their own musical act. They also serve as a sort of Greek chorus, and are singers with a remarkable ability to shine in solos but come together almost as one voice on harmonies that literally brought me to tears. Brad Raymond is especially moving as he embodies Ronald’s big brotherly concern for BeBe with a droll yet firm strength.

Milton Craig Nealy and Nita Whitaker as Pop and Mom Winans mine their characters for every ounce of humor and pathos. Their ethos is pragmatic, loving, and wry. “They might be singing about Jesus, but they’re dancing on the edge of hell,” Pops says about his four sons as they are pelted by women’s panties onstage. Both performers steer well clear of bombast and stereotypes, offering a father and mother we would all love to have.

Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker becomes the show’s unlikely anchor. BeBe and CeCe get their start singing for the Bakkers on the PTL Club in 1982. At first, Wyatt is hysterically funny as the tear-stained, ambitious woman of cartoonish infamy. Then a strange thing happens: Somewhere along the line, the character’s fierce love for BeBe and CeCe becomes incredibly moving. They can forgive her appalling, often racist cluelessness. She calls them her “Chocolate Drops,” “Black Babies,” and “Colored Children,” sparking audible gasps from the audience. Yet, she is utterly sincere under all that makeup, jewelry, and apparent religious hypocrisy. CeCe and BeBe’s ability to love Tammy Fay and Jim, to see past their weaknesses and transgressions, and offer unconditional love says volumes about what being Christians means to them.

And if BeBe’s mixed feelings about fame seem a little overwrought at first, one only has to remember the future trajectories of Whitney and the Bakkers to remember that everyone in the Winans family has real experience with how toxic it can be.

Director and book writer Charles Randolph-Wright emphasizes love and faith, without ever forgetting the value of pure entertainment. He gives all the performers moments to shine individually, and the ensemble is a winning assortment of sizes, shapes, and ages that makes them seem like real people, rather than a chorus of perfect bodies fresh from yoga and Pilates. The great William Ivey Long is a costume design God who makes his detailed work seem effortless. Warren Adams choreographs with a fresh sense of what’s right for the characters. The movement is rooted in character and story.

At the curtain call, the real BeBe and Marvin Winans sang together with the whole cast. I imagine elements of the family’s lives have been rearranged for the show, with some narrative license taken. Never mind. Their brotherly love and affectionate banter gives tangible proof of the authentic feeling that permeates Born For This.

“Give me a little bit of that sexy Jesus thing,” the PTL musical director says to CeCe in one of her first rehearsals for the show. I couldn’t agree more. I’m a white, half-Jewish, half-Latino gay guy with no fixed religious beliefs, but I would give myself heart and soul to Jesus right now if it meant I could have been born a Winans.

photos by Ben Gibbs

Born for This
The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage
1310 11th St in Santa Monica
ends on August 6, 2017
for tickets, call 310.434.3200 or visit The Broad

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Angela July 27, 2017 at 3:47 pm

I saw this moving production eight times in Atlanta and twice in DC last year. I loved each and every performance! Got to meet all of the cast and got to know a few. Can’t wait to see it on BROADWAY and longing for the Born for This original cast CD.


Catherine July 30, 2017 at 6:45 pm

I saw this production today in Santa Monica and am still reeling from the excellence of the experience. I don’t know the logistics of bringing a play to Broadway (it SO belongs there), and after reading the program I see that many of these performers are already very accomplished, so maybe it’s not in the master plan. But, as a long time Broadway theatergoer, a great fan of musicals, and a native Detroiter, I have to say that this will always be among my most favorite and memorable musical theater experiences. And I would see it again.


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