By Barry Reszel
Promotional photos for shows at Black Ensemble Theatre, and actually for many Chicagoland companies, are delivered via the file share system, “Dropbox.”
For BET’s current production of “The Jackie Wilson Story,” the url at the top of of that photo share page ought to be renamed to DropEverythingAndBuyATicketToThisElectricPerformance or maybe DropDeadAwesome.
So good are the vocals performed in this remounted biopic celebrating BET’s 40th anniversary that they regularly elicit complimentary shouts from the audience, like “Lawd, Lawd…” and “Go Home, Boy!”
The appreciative primary recipient of these accolades is Kevin Roston, Jr., whose spot-on depiction of the 1950s and 60s pop icon Jackie Wilson is so true that Wilson’s son came to the show’s opening to see for himself and reflect on his dad’s tragic-if-soulful life.
Roston puts this show on his back, carrying the bulk of a weighty songbook featuring yesteryear’s hits like “Tweedle Dee,” “Lonely Teardrops,” “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend” and “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher,” among many, many others. That said, he is surrounded by an exceptionally capable vocal ensemble that complements, supports and at times gives him a breath (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” etc.)
That group begins with 15-year BET veteran and Chicagoland favorite Rueben Echoles, who plays Wilson’s friend and business coordinator B.B., and also glowingly features Melanie McCullough as Wilson’s first wife Freida and the stunning Kora Kishe’ Green who stars as Wilson’s mother, Eliza Mae, and particularly shines in the OMG moment that is her rendition of the soulfully tender, “A Mother’s Love.”
Indeed, “A Mother’s Love” is one of three original songs penned by the show’s playwrite and director, BET’s founder and Executive Director Jackie Taylor, that help tie the scenes of the biopic together The others are the opening number, “Jackie Wilson (Was a Hell of a Man),” and the particularly poignant, “When the Sun Refuse to Shine.”
Like many musical biographies, “The Jackie Wilson Story” works because his life story is interesting enough (read about it here) without most scenes needing to feel contrived, but the songbook is concert-worthy in its own right. And to be clear, the scene work in this “Jackie Wilson Story” is professionally adequate, largely devoid of surprise; the musicianship among the band and the vocalists is out of this world.
Well-deserved plaudits go to band members Robert Reddrick, Dudley Owens, Bill McFarland, Paul Howard and Clovis Bordeaux, along with ensemble members Kylah Frye, Direoce Junirs, Kyle Smith, Jessica Seals, Brandon Lavell, Denni C. Dent, Ekia Thomas and Vincent Jordan.
All of this is to say, if a friend suggests taking in this remount of the 2000 production that ran for two years, including a national tour and stint at New York’s Apollo Theatre, just say you will.
Black Ensemble Theatre presents “The Jackie Wilson Story” through September 4 at the Black Ensemble Theatre Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago. More information and tickets ($55 -$65 with discounts for seniors and groups) are available here.