“Last Dancer Standing (More Than Hip-Hop),” the Black Ensemble Theater’s high-flying new musical, is many things all rolled into one.
The creation of Rueben Echoles, the protean talent who has written, directed and choreographed the production, it is, for starters, a takeoff on a reality television show in which a group of 12 dancers engage in an intense competition that will result in just one of them earning a big prize.
‘LAST DANCER STANDING (MORE THAN HIP HOP)’
When: Through Sept. 3
Where: Black Ensemble Theater,
4450 N. Clark
Info: (773) 769-4451;
Run time: 2 hours, 25
minutes, one intermission
The show, which features 20 multitalented performers, also suggests the sort of personal dramas played out backstage in such shows. It serves as a terrific showcase of dance in a wide variety of styles, from hip-hop and break moves to modern and even a bit of ballet. And it features a wide-ranging songbook, from hip-hop to hits by Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Madonna, Michael Jackson and more, all played in bravura style by music director Robert Reddrick’s four-piece onstage band.
It also looks at the tense, competitive relationship between a long-established celebrity diva soul singer and her very talented daughter, determined to establish her own starry identity.
Beyond all of this, the show might just be the most politically outspoken of the Black Ensemble’s revues over its long history. For while the issue of racial bias and unfair financial practices has been laced into most of its biographical musicals of countless African-American performers, “Last Dancer Standing” deals directly and forcefully with the way the Black Lives Matters protest movement can (or cannot) be given a voice on commercial television networks other than being reported about on news shows.
It begins on a flashy soundstage outfitted with three large video screens, where the show’s host, Radiant Michaels (Alexis J. Roston, true to her character’s name) — backed by a trio of power-voiced singers (Levi Stewart Jr., Renelle Nicole and Jessica Seals), introduces the competition’s three judges: Sebastion (Andre Teamer), the authoritative executive who has devised and produced the show, which is in its premiere season; Launa (Lauren Wells), Sebastion’s ambitious associate, and Justin Paul (Deverin Deonte’), a hip-hop star whose political agenda is only gradually revealed.
We learn that, in addition to a $100,000 prize, the contest winner will get to tour with Paul.
Over the course of several shows, the competitors must work together and individually, displaying their technique, discipline and ability to work cooperatively. The judges eliminate them gradually, whittling them down to a final three whose destinies will be decided by “the viewers,” which becomes the audience at the Black Ensemble.
Aside from much sensational dancing by a cast of big personalities and stylish moves that includes Linnea Norwood, Charlotte Drover, Lemond A. Hayes, Brian Nelson, Junior White, Kyla Frye, Lauren Wells, Shonee Muse, Brian Boller, Trequon Tate, Michael Adkins and Alexis Aker, there is much drama and rivalry. There is a scene of unsanctioned drinking at a club event that’s caught on tape. And there is friction between straight and gay male dancers that engenders an impassioned ideological/religious dispute.
The mother-daughter competition is expertly played (and sung), with Shari Addison in gorgeous voice as Evette Michaels (she knocks it out of the park with her renditions of the Chaka Khan hits “Ain’t Nobody” and “Through the Fire”), and Rolston suggesting she is very much her mother’s daughter with Keys’ “In Common” and Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need.”
It is left for the Justin Paul character (dressed in a T-shirt emblazoned in gold with the words “Black Lives Matter”) to belt out “Freedom,” the recent Beyonce hit, defying Sebastion’s warning that such an act will endanger the future of his “Last Dancer Standing” enterprise and all those who work for it. As he must, Deonte’ seizes the moment.
The scores of exceptionally varied and lavish costumes by Cherise Thomas add high polish to Echoles’ tightly imagined production — a show that neatly dances between pure entertainment and measured provocation.