By Barry Reszel
Three particularly stellar performances in a world premiere musical with a probable long-term future make Black Ensemble Theatre’s The Marvelous Marvelettes an intriguing summer entertainment option.
This new story of Motown’s first hit group is a less sanitized, more accessible version of Berry Gordy’s startup record label than seen in the extravagant Broadway musical Motown (in Chicago through Aug. 9.) It’s a triumph for rookie playwright Reginald Williams because this show has legs beyond its current BET run.
Chronicling the story of five teenage girls from Inkster, Mich., who helped to propel Motown into national stardom and give them their first million-record seller, The Marvelous Marvelettes is a terrific play with a built-in soundtrack. Songs made famous by the Marvelettes include “Don’t Mess with Bill,” “Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” “My Baby Must be a Magician,” “Beechwood 45789,” and “Please Mr. Postman,” among others.
While many people believe the most famous girl group to come out of Motown was The Supremes, history says otherwise. Told in flashback by two members of the group, now middle-aged, meeting at a Los Angeles airport cafe, Marvelettes recounts the difficult history of the group through the turbulent 60s.
Little dirty laundry is left unaired. Unfair Motown contracts, unrealistic schedules, infighting, sex scandal, alcoholism, illness and personnel changes are all wrapped into this delicious do-wop songbook.
Deanna Reed-Foster as Older Katherine and Rhonda Preston as Older Jaunita don’t steal the show; they anchor it. And that’s important because their dramatic scenes, along with the numerous concert pieces featuring their younger selves and pals (particularly Melanie McCollough as lead singer Gladys) are the best parts of this production.
Indeed, most of the singing is stellar, the choreography delicious (kudos to director Rueben D. Echoles) and the costuming Broadway-ready, thanks to Ruthanne Swanson, costume designer.
The show does drag in spots, particularly in the Motown office scenes. And there’s too little illustration of the Marvelettes’ interactions with other Motown performers during what are supposed to be label tours.
But these are nits to be fixed in this show’s next iteration. For now, it’s marvelous enough for a summer evening’s enjoyment.
“The Marvelous Marvelettes” runs through September 7 at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark, Chicago. Tickets are $55-$65 and can be purchased by calling 773-769-4451 or online at www.blackensemble.org.