By Patrick O’Brien
Though she gave up a singing career to raise a family, Grandstine (Yahdina U-Deen), the veritable matriarch of the Harris family, refused to let the music on which she raised her family fade away in vain. So much so, she insisted that her family use that music to celebrate her life rather than mourn her loss. Less a funeral, more a “going-to-heaven party,” in her words.
And as the Harris family reassembles at their Mississippi homestead to prepare for the occasion – their pasts and presents laying bare the breadth of their matriarch’s legacy – the audience is not left out for a second. All the better, for Black Ensemble Theater’s Sounds So Sweet is a family party to attend. Maybe a little long and a little predictable, as family parties may be, but lots of fun, all the same.
The party is held in a house built on a sturdy selection of the biggest girl-group hits of the last 60 years, assembled by Writer/Director Reuben Echoles (further shored up by Robert Reddrick’s musical team), covering everything from the hop ‘n’ bop ’50s to the diva powerhouses of the ’90s (with some Andrews Sisters and Rodgers & Hammerstein, to boot).
True, a fair number of those songs get little more set-up than the old-fashioned musical-theater calls of “Let’s rehearse this number” or “Remember that old song?” But when they click with the proceedings, they really click. Highlights in this regard include the sing-off between the generations – the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On” versus Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” – or the sisterly eleven o’ clock duet, “Yesterday.”
The program lists one original song, written by Echoles, “Grandstine’s Lullaby.” Simple, but not simplistic, and affecting, especially as sung by Cherise Thomas as the woman in her youth. One wonders if Echoles will grace us with a full score someday.
As the sisters, Dawn Bless as the busybody Marcia ably handles the divide between oldies and pop music without breaking a sweat or her voice, while Rhonda Preston as the beleaguered Ruth has a voice that, though initially (intentionally) slight, builds in resolve until their full-throated duet.
Much happens to justify the busyness and beleaguerment before that moment, though. Par for the course for any such gathering, Marcia and Ruth’s own families come with their respective baggage, ranging from the oncoming pressures of adulthood and managing the family business to surprise engagements (Mark J.P. Hood and Paige Hauer are well-matched as the lovebirds) and surprise divorces, and even the chance the old house that brings them together may soon be nothing but a memory itself. Timeless struggles, all of them, and the cast gives them the gravity they command, and the strength and good humor to surmount them. (Easy enough. There’s no wall that could withstand their collective vocals, a wall of sound that would make Phil Spector proud.)
Rounding out the family are Nicole Michelle Haskins and Melanie McCullough as Ria and Melissa, Marcia and Ruth’s daughters, respectively; the former steely, the latter barely holding it together. Ti Nicole Danridge and Jessica Brooke Seals as Michelle and Tiana, the troublesome fourth generation of Harris women, may occasionally wander, but they know what’s what and find their way back. (The latter’s singing in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is a delight to hear.)
Also, in the haze of memory (or right next door, your pick), stand Lee (Daniel Phillips) and Robert (Casey Hayes). The former, the long-deceased patriarch of the Harrises, has a reassuring bravado as both a music man and a family man. The latter is the timid gentlemanly neighbor who – recognizes the pace of time, considering the funereal circumstances –pursues some unfinished romantic business with Marcia. His few bars of music, though indeed few, are weighty with lost time, but also with ample hope for the future.
Late in Act One, their present situation sprawled out inside the house, Marcia asks Ruth, “What are we going to do with these children of ours?” Ruth simply responds: “Love them.” It is an answer one can expect to give about Sounds So Sweet, to simply love it. Parts of it may go on long and may be well-worn, but only because there’s comfort to be found in such universal truths. Truths as easy yet resolute as any enduring pop hit, one that will bind the Harrises – and, hopefully, those who come to see – together till their well-sung send-offs at their own going-to-heaven parties.
“Sounds So Sweet” runs through May 31 at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark St, Chicago. Valet parking is available. Performances are on Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00 pm; and Sundays at 3:00 pm) Tickets ($55-$65, with a 10% discount for students, seniors and groups) are available online here or by phone at (773) 769-4451.