By Patrick O’Brien
Go for the dancing, go for the dancing, go for the dancing.
Now, there are plenty more merits to My Brother’s Keeper, Black Ensemble Theater’s tribute to dancing dynamos Fayard and Harold Nicholas. But this is probably as close as Chicagoans can get these days to seeing the genuine article live. And considering half the things their theatrical counterparts (Rashawn Thompson and Reuben Echoles, respectively) pull off, they can only be seen live to be believed.
Let’s leave it at “tandem leap-frog jump-splits down a flight of stairs.”
The Brothers’ career in revue settings—from Harlem to Hollywood to Paris—is a snug fit for Black Ensemble’s usual model for performance, and this show is a revue with a capital “R,” with the red, red curtain, scallop footlights and a sweeping Ziegfeld staircase to match, all used to great effect. And the songs to match, too: “Minnie the Moocher,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “I Got Rhythm.”
That the songs were written for variety settings also alleviates some of the choppy song placement that crept into Black Ensemble’s previous shows, but Echoles’s original swing pastiches (yep, the same Echoles) are felicitous.
The high-energy, peppy songs make a nice contrast with the connecting scenes of quiet perseverance, not only against segregation and prejudice in the entertainment world, but behind the scenes, too. Well, quiet, but just as intense as any of their dance routines. Echoles—in a fine departure from his usual ebullience, at least in this reviewer’s experience—is both impetuous and melancholic, his Harold stymied by a fateful and careless decision. Thompson meanwhile holds it together as much as an older brother can; but even Fayard had his weaknesses, namely, his marriage.
His first wife, the no-nonsense Geraldine Pate (Jessica Seals) helps narrate the show, helped along by Dorothy Dandridge (Taylay Thomas) Harold’s first wife and entertainer in her own right who wants (and gets) what’s hers; and diligent mother Viola (Shari Addison), who has the stablest hold on the Brothers’ lives. They shine, too, especially Thomas, who also shines quite literally in one of Echoles’s sequined dresses. (Yep, the same Echoles.)
(Speaking of shining performances, though, Vincent Thomas as a spot-on Cab Calloway, down to the hair, deserve a tribute show in their own right.)
Robert Reddrick’s musical direction is, as usual, as sharp as his band’s tuxes. And Echoles, having directed this show twice before, (and yep, the same Echoles) directs with confidence. A necessity when one considers the stunt-like moves he and his cast have to pull off.
Again: “tandem leap-frog jump-splits down a flight of stairs.”
Make the jump down Clark Street and catch the Nicholas Brothers’ legacy, live, in person, and in very good hands.
Black Ensemble Theater presents “My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers” through March 26th at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N Clark Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.