Chicago Theater Review: A NEW ATTITUDE (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 14, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


You can only listen and love: The former Patricia Louise Holt-Edwards oozes energy on stage. She kicks off her shoes in sheer delight. Loving jazz from the outside in, she sets style standards with each new wardrobe. An entrepreneur, she sells her own “Fancy Cakes” on the Cooking Channel and brands her talent on Dancing with the Stars. At 74, dynamic diva Patti LaBelle is luxuriating in her own R&B legend, reason enough to shout out a two-act salute. The latest electric homage from Black Ensemble Theater, A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti LaBelle, written and directed by the prolific Rueben D. Echoles, sums up in songs an icon and a superstar.

As always, B.E.T.’s retrospective revues have a blast, reprising a life and turning it into recording gold. Putting a sometimes-painful price on the pleasure we get from the music they made, these reclamation efforts invariably involve the challenges life gives African-American artists — a hardscrabble, Jim Crow-infested incubation period; overcoming shyness and family resistance to breaking beyond gospel; friction and inspiration from white producers and managers — along with the universal reversals or returns that come from fame, love and death.

Echoles faithfully recounts LaBelle’s career — her Philadelphia origins where she endured family fights; reverence for a crooning daddy (“You’ll Never Walk Alone” sung by Christopher Taylor); and a “doo wop” development into Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, then LaBelle. Unstoppable paths led to crossover success and irresistible sales of 50 million records, induction into the Grammy, Apollo, and Songwriters Halls of Fame and Hollywood Walk of Fame. Rolling Stone lists her among the “100 Greatest Singers.” The Godmother of Soul has appeared regularly in films and on TV.

Now in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, you can see her in two enthralling incarnations, young Patsy (Cherise Thomas) and a terrific Patti (Dawn Bless), crushing it on Clark Street. From Bless’s opening bravura belting in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to her disco-defining “Lady Marmalade” to the final consecrating “When You’ve Been Blessed,” it’s a full and open contest between Bless and Thomas’s evolving phenom to hear who rules the B.E.T. roost. Happily, given Robert Reddrick’s infallible musical direction, they both win.

Along the way we’re regaled with cloned contributions by Patti’s peers — James Moody, James Brown, Dinah Washington (“Somebody Loves Me”), Sarah Vaughn (“Moanin’”), and Cindy Birdsong. Emily Hawkins depicts the consultant who changed Patti’s act, giving her a “new attitude” until she inevitably went solo. Kylah Williams is her supportive mother Chubby, Renelle Nicole her championing sister. Trequon Tate fills in the men in her life, appearing or not in a marriage that slowly ran out of steam.

As with all the fabrications from B.E.T. founder Jackie Taylor’s hit factory, the draw is the score. Placing us present at the creation so lightning can strike twice, beside the title song, pile-driving triumphs include Patti’s career-making “You Are My Friend,” “On My Own,” “If You Asked Me,” and “If You Only Knew.” There’s a “Danny Boy” that gives black Irish a new feel and an alphabet song from Sesame Street that’s picture perfect. We get both a three-number Bluebelles medley and a four-strong Patti one. It’s a characteristically generous 150 minutes. Add in Echoles’ costumes, gorgeous beyond the cornea’s capacity, the first and last words on the LaBelle look. You’ll get a “new attitude” too.

photos by Alan Davis

A New Attitude
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 June 17, 2018
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Black Ensemble Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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