Anyone in need of a reminder of why the Black Ensemble Theater is one of this city’s most valuable cultural institutions need only take a seat for founder Jackie Taylor’s latest show, “Chicago’s Golden Soul (A 60’s Revue).” An unmitigated knockout of a revue, it features an amalgam of musical talent that not only pays homage to the great names of this city’s influential past, but lets a whole new generation step up to the microphone.
True, the cast of this show is not comprised of songwriters, but rather, of performing artists whose vocal prowess, dance moves and distinctive personalities are electrifying. And, not incidentally, they are backed by a thundering, Grammy-level eight-piece band led by Robert Reddrick.
But Taylor (writer, director, producer), super-charged choreographer Mark Allan Davis, and a cast of 10 (all of whom also appear in “The Story of Curtis Mayfield,” now running in rotating rep with “Golden Soul”), have a way of making you believe you are there “at the creation.” Even the spirit of competition among the “heyday artists” of late 1950s and early 1960s Chicago becomes palpable as each actor turns up the heat.
The show begins by defining “Chicago soul” as a magical mix of the blues sound carried north during the Great Migration, and the “slightly more hopeful” sound of those already in the city. And it names lots of names, from individual artists and groups to producers and record labels (Vee-Jay, Chess, Brunswick, Mayfield’s Curtom Records). But mostly it just lets the phenomenal singing burst forth.
The men take precedence at first, with nods to Jerry Butler, the Duke of Earl, The Impressions and others by way of David L. Simmons, Lawrence Williams, Rob Love, Brian Nelson, Cecil Jones and Byron Willis. Then the ladies declare themselves, and it’s a thrill to hear Alanna Taylor, Christina D. Harper, Katrina Richard and Ta-Tynisa Wilson duke it out in sensational fashion before joining the guys for “Shake a Tail Feather,” a breathtaking first act finale.
The explosive fun continues with the funky, crazily playful “Go Gorilla Go” and “Kill That Roach”, and a rendition of “Summertime” by Williams that would make the Gershwins cheer. The ladies return for scorching renditions of “Love Makes a Woman,” “There’ll Come a Time,” “It’s All Over Casanova” and “In the Basement.” And then, decked out in one of the many sets of Broadway-level costumes overseen by Evelyn Danner, the show brings it all back home with a rousing marathon medley.
Only one nagging question lingers: Why do so few of these incredibly talented BET performers ever get tapped for musicals on the city’s other stages?
NOTE: Taylor’s hilarious (and politically brilliant) post-show thank-you speech at Sunday’s opening included a hint that her soul food restaurant might be in the works soon.