By Sheri and Josh Flanders
Sheri and Josh are an interracial, married, Chicago-based comedy writing and performing duo and contributors to ChicagolandMusicalTheatre.com. The following conversation was spawned by attending Black Ensemble Theater’s production of “A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti LaBelle” …with their moms!
SHERI: This is a special Mother’s Day edition, since we both brought our moms to this Mother’s Day performance. It’s a BOGO! Double reviewers and double-moms!
JOSH: And what a perfect show to bring mom to see! The Black Ensemble Theater is known for always having great musical shows and I figured that A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti LaBelle would at least be entertaining, but I had no idea how absolutely wonderful the entire performance would be. This performance blew me away with its energy, emotional content and real acting. It’s rare when incredible voices, outstanding live music and fine acting all come together, but this show pulls it off. I’ve got a new attitude!
SHERI: If you need an attitude adjustment, this is the show to see. This show is filled with lively dance numbers, drama and pathos (I cried at least twice) and a generous dollop of heartwarming nostalgia. I was snatched back to my adolescence upon hearing the first few notes of a killer rendition of the Michael McDonald duet version of “On My Own” (with spot-on delivery by Mark Yacullo as McDonald). And then I was rushed even further to my childhood when the cast delightfully recreates a Patti cover of a children’s song that aired on PBS. Strap in, because this show puts you in your feels from the first note.
JOSH: The show opens with a bang as Dawn Bless (who plays present-day Patti) comes out and crushes the best rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” I have ever heard (apologies to the late Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole and his ukulele). My mom, who fits in perfectly at Black Ensemble Theater because she talks during performances (Sheri said it was OK to make this joke) –
SHERI: You’re not wrong.
JOSH: – my mom said to me “I have never heard a voice like that” and she was right.
SHERI: My favorite thing about Black Ensemble Theater is that no one told them that every song in a show can’t be a legit showstopper. Literally every song will either make the hair stand up on your neck, make you cry, yell at the singers for being so dang good or make you smack somebody. Bless is the anchor of this show and has a voice blessed by the gods. She is a national treasure and should be in every show at every theater always. And Cherise Thomas is also a tour-de-force as young Patti. When she falls to the ground, singing her heart out in one extraordinarily cathartic scene, I’m pretty sure the entire theater died, went to heaven and was resurrected just in time to give her a standing ovation.
JOSH: This lively musical not only charts the ups and downs of Patti’s family and romantic life (I admit, many an unexpected tear were shed) as well as the influence of singing at church, but also looks at her musical influences, including Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, James Moody, Cab Calloway and others.
SHERI: My mother grew up listening to Sarah Vaughan and other vocalists of those decades and remarked that though all of the performers in this show have amazing voices, when covering the older jazz standards their voices lacked a certain “maturity and polish” that was a stylistic cornerstone of the era. It was an extremely astute observation. My mom has a good ear, y’all.
JOSH: Having grown up in the 1980s, I knew Patti from songs like “New Attitude” but had no idea of her earlier career with the Blue Belles in the 1960s and 70s, through LaBelle, and on to her solo career. The three women who play the other members of the Blue Belles, Jessica Brooke Seals, Kylah Williams, and Renelle Nicole not only fill out a magnificent harmony but also bring each of their own vivacity and personality to their roles. And the men in this production also hold their own, with Trequon Tate playing Armstead, Patti’s husband of over 30 years, with quiet assuredness and calm, easy presence to balance her intensity.
The Black Ensemble band (Robert Reddrick, Adam Sherod, and Herbert Walker), who support many of their productions, deserve their own shout out. As the daughter of a piano teacher and pianist herself, my mom said, “this band, and that keyboardist, are fantastic!”
SHERI: As the always stellar BE band seamlessly shifts from jazz to rock to pop, younger generations are able to viscerally experience musical evolution in real-time and connect dots that were previously disparate. Black Ensemble Theater provides crucial musical historical context in a way that no other Chicago theater does. There are unlimited think-pieces recently arguing that the concept of cultural appropriation isn’t valid. It is impossible to make that argument after hearing the story of what LaBelle and other black artists had to experience to achieve success, despite their amazing talents. This is essential history that cannot be forgotten.
As a recovering fashion designer, I was also fascinated to discover that Patti was not only a fashion icon, but a pioneer for the over-the-top dramatic rock and roll style. Her costume designer Larry LeGaspi went on to create the unforgettable looks for acts such as George Clinton and KISS, and Patti’s drag was the impetus for the trend. The costume designer, and director, for this show, Rueben D. Echoles, does not disappoint, recreating many of Patti’s most unforgettable looks, and treats the audience with a scorchingly entertaining rendition of “Lady Marmalade,” complete with three-inch stiletto heels and a silver cape.
JOSH: Both us and our moms give A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti LaBelle 8 thumbs up!
A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti LaBelle runs June 17 at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago. More information and tickets available here. Photos by Alan Davis.