By Colin Douglas
Jackie Taylor is Chicago’s undisputed master of the biographical musical revue. She knows how to weave the theatrical backstory around, into and throughout a singer’s discography of music.
In the glossy re-staging of “Don’t Make Me Over,” Taylor’s popular show from 2006, the third installment of Black Ensemble Theatre’s 40th Anniversary Season of Hits, we find ourselves reveling in so many beautiful songs that were propelled into hits by the one and only Dionne Warwick.
A gracious, welcoming, all-knowing and all-telling character named Ms. Divine is our hostess for this tribute. Through her we learn that Dionne was a child of the Chicago Projects and that she began her career as part of the Gospel group, “The Drinkard Singers.” Then, with her family, she started singing backup for other singers. That famously musical family consisted of her talented mother Lee, her Aunt Cissy and her younger sister Dee Dee. We also discover that Dionne’s related to the superstar and mega-talented, Whitney Houston, and that she was friends with several other singing stars, including Diana Ross and Gladys Knight. The audience catches a glimpse of the group’s musical relationship with other singing sensations, such as “The Drifters,” and eventually learn how Dionne was “discovered” by the composing team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Even Barry Manilow played an important role in reviving the diva’s career, just when things were looking bleak.
However, despite all the biographical material presented, much of it simply narrated by Ms. Divine, it’s the wonderful music that, as always, takes center stage. Besides, the title tune, the cast impresses with famous Dionne Warwick hits like “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Always Something There to Remind Me,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” and the splashy Act I finale, “Walk on By.
The second half of the revue’s highlighted by “Trains and Boats and Planes,” “You’ll Never Get to Heaven If You Break My Heart,” “Then Came You,” “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” “This Girl’s in Love With You,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “Alfie” and a heartfelt, full company rendition of “That’s What Friends Are For.” The quietly melancholy “Theme From ‘Valley of the Dolls’” features a lovely dream ballet that captures the loneliness of the film.
The production is directed and choreographed with class and style by BET’s multitalented Renaissance man, Reuben Echoles. He brings passion and poetry-in-motion to this show, infusing the musical numbers with synchronized movement and dance steps that add so much. Echoles is also responsible for the beautiful wig and costume design, which are elegant, upscale and breathtaking. Every outfit is perfectly tailored to each actor and provides that extra special sparkle that’s become the signature look of the Black Ensemble Theater. Robert Reddrick once again artfully directs this cast musically, while also playing and conducting his topnotch, seven-member instrumental combo perched high above the performers.
Alexis J. Rogers keeps the proceedings moving as the lovely, charming Ms. Divine. This talented Equity actress is winsome, and wickedly witty, but she also possesses the voice of a singing goddess. Three different singers share the role of Dionne. Although they wisely never try to approximate Ms. Warwick’s inimitable vocal style, they bring the same ease and naturalness that made this lady the queen of crossover music. Kylah Frye is feisty and fabulous as Dionne 1 and, clearly the leader of the pack, possessing all the attitude and just the right moves. Rose Marie Simmons blends well with her musical partners, although she doesn’t have the same vocal strength as a soloist. Simmons, however, makes the most of the sad “Theme From ‘Valley of the Dolls.’” Beautiful Renelle Nicole is magnificent as Dionne 2, especially in her sassy version of the pop rock classic, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”
The excellent supporting cast includes Risha Tenae as a sensible Aunt Cissy, Toi Overton is spunky and funny as Lee; Katrina Ri’Chard makes Dee Dee an unsung treasure; William Dale Rowland is fantastic as both Burt Bacharach, Barry Manilow and later in the show as Elton John. Dennis C. Dent shows off his winning voice as Phillippe and Brandon Lavell is great as Rudy. Filling in the ensemble, Gregory Slater vocally provides a harmonic sound and some smooth moves.
The only area that disappoints in this revue is a needlessly wordy and often repetitive book. Taylor’s strength is selecting and focusing on a particular noteworthy soloist or vocal group, casting an ensemble of super talented singer/dancers to bring their beautiful music to life and then wowing the public with the brilliance of her exciting theatrical production. In this lovely, sincere tribute, after all the other wonderful singers of her generation, Ms. Dionne Warwick, Then Came You!
Black Ensemble Theater presents “Don’t Make Me Over: A Tribute to Dionne Warwick” through May 15 at 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago. Tickets are available by calling (773) 769-4451 or online here. Colin Douglas’ reviews of other productions may be read at theatreinchicago.com.