Its original production, At Last: A Tribute to Etta James, written and directed by the founder of the theater, Jackie Taylor, celebrates the complex person behind James’ many famous songs. Five Ettas, in fact, interact and perform together on the thrust stage where every seat in the house makes the audience feel like part of the show.
Each Etta represents a different decade of her life and symbolically dresses in a different color of the rainbow. For a more detailed description, click here.
The host of the show is Mrs. Real, played by Rueben D. Echoles. This fierce drag queen anchors the production and gets most of the laughs for his attitude and interaction with the audience. He tries to show through the five Etta James incarnations that, despite mistakes made throughout her life, she did the best she could and died happy. Very spirited, Mrs. Real is often required to break up fights or keep the Ettas focused on the task at hand. During this trip down memory lane, the various Ettas sing songs representative of how she felt at different points in her life.
Donned in red, Alanna Taylor plays the youngest Etta. Acting lost and very emotional, she has a powerful voice and strongly sings all her songs, including “All I Could Do Was Cry.” In shades of orange, Melanie McCullough plays the second youngest Etta, who often seems strung out and on a roller coaster. Her portrayal has the most power and vivacity, including her highlight rendition of “Just a Little Bit.”
The middle Etta, in yellow, (Candace C. Edwards) offeres the softest volume without taking away from her jazzy renditions of songs like “Drown in My Own Tears.”
The older Ettas, Yahdina U-Deen in blue and Arzula Maxine Gardner in purple, both hold their own with deep, soulful voices and quick-tempoed choreography. Their renditions of “Damn Your Eyes” and “Tell Mama” are incredibly heart-felt and impressive.
Similar to some church services, the opening night audience was occasionally so moved that members shouted out encouragement and stood up during the show. This noisy atmosphere gave a festive feel to the typical theatre ritual of sitting back and being quiet.
Though the book could use a bit of tightening to eliminate some of the more redundant arguments among the ladies, sheer vocal quality alone makes At Last an enjoyable experience well worth the price of admission.
“At Last: A Tribute to Etta James” is presented at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark Street, Chicago, through December 28. Tickets are $55 on Thursdays and Saturday matinees and $65 on Fridays, Saturday evenings and Sundays. More information and tickets are available at www.blackensemble.org.