By Patrick O’Brien
Four of music’s greatest divas–Roberta Flack, Nancy Wilson, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin–placed in a room, and they can’t get out until they have tapped the deep-running well of emotion that has kept them at the top of their game for decades.
No, this is not Soul Train meets Sartre, but rather Black Ensemble Theater’s Dynamite Divas, founder and CEO Jackie Taylor’s 2001 play, here revived with ample goodwill as the company ramps up for its 40th year.
Plot, you say? Yes, we will get it out of the way: Mr. Maurice (the multihyphenate Rueben D. Echoles)–a man of many mysterious means, with the assistance of his majordomos (Donald Manuel and Kyle Smith)–has devoted his largesse to a worldwide telecast of a divalicious concert. All the usual amenities and logistics are accounted for: a dressing room holding chamber (a sharp fuchsia/electric-blue discotheque by Denise Karczewski); a holographic “assimilator;” and as much time spent to clearing the air and soul as to clearing the throat.
The showbiz, history, family, love and faith all have their turn as a discussion point as the clock counts down. But though Echoles mischievously twinkles just fine, and Taylor has her way with a one-liner, this is a show that functions best purely as a dynamite vehicle for some oldies which, placed judiciously, can still bowl over an audience. Not just because of the vocal acrobatics required to sing them, but the message to which those acrobatics pay service.
Knight’s “Letter Full of Tears” swells, Flack’s “Reverend Lee” smolders. And in cameo appearances from music’s past thanks to that assimilator doohickey, Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” still wearily assures while Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” still burns white-hot.
And each and every one of them is given a solid turn. Both Rhonda Preston and Melanie McCollough turn in solid work as Wilson and Flack, respectfully, but it is the empress of soul and the queen of pop–Gladys and Aretha–who spark and shine. Rashada Dawan holds court with beauteous emotion and a swell pair of bell bottoms, while Shari Addison never lets anyone onstage (or off) forget she’s the queen. Her act-closing renditions of “Respect” and “Think” are worth the price of admission (as are music director Robert Reddrick’s arrangements).
Though, again, that price of admission for that pleasure does depend on one’s tolerance for non-diva-related filler. It felt like a misstep, in pacing and tone, to give the finale (and the final bow) over to Mr. Maurice, who, it turns out, brought these divas together at great cost and great care only to pitch his latest invention on the much-ballyhooed telecast. Sure, we get a decent gospel tune out of his pitch, but the show is functionally over once the divas have stepped on the stage and sung up a storm.
And, functionally speaking, the show is made for the divas, not Mr. Maurice’s all-too-mysterious machinations (at least when they are not overexplained). The songs work, the arrangement works, the actresses work. (Hell, they really work werk). Pack it in a little tighter and this musical TNT can truly blow folks away.
“Dynamite Divas” runs through January 24th at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark St, Chicago. Valet parking is available. Performances are on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets ($55-$65, with a 10% discount for students, seniors, and groups) are available online here or by phone (773) 769-4451.