To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the Black Ensemble Theater has been spending the current season revisiting its greatest hits. And without question, “The Jackie Wilson Story” — artistic director Jackie Taylor’s music-driven bio of the singer and songwriter with the four-octave vocal range, whose electrifying stage persona earned him the nickname “Mr. Entertainment” — is at or near the very top of that list.
First produced in 2000, it enjoyed a record-breaking run of close to two years, went on a national tour and played at New York’s fabled Apollo Theater for six weeks. It also catapulted its young star, Chester Gregory, to Broadway.
Now, Kelvin Roston Jr., who played the title role when BET opened its handsome new home here five years ago, is again giving a powerhouse portrayal of the musician credited with moving rhythm and blues into soul and inspiring the stage antics of James Brown, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.
In this marathon role that spins the classic tale of an artist with immense talent who enjoyed chart-topping success, engaged in a good deal of self-destructive behavior, was cheated by his record company, began to fall out of synch with changing tastes and then, at the very moment he embarked on a comeback, was hit by a fatal illness, Roston sings, dances and acts up a storm.
He also engages in several priceless, laugh-inducing seductions of members of the audience. He hits every falsetto note, slides into more joint-challenging half-splits than you can count and just as easily slides from naughty flirtations and broken romance to deep depression.
“THE JACKIE WILSON STORY”
When: Through Sept. 4
Where: Black Ensemble Theater,
4450 N. Clark
Info: (773) 769-4451
Run time: 2 hours
and 35 minutes with one intermission
The show opens in a hospital room as nurses tend to Wilson, who died in in 1984 at 49, after spending about nine years in a semicomatose state brought on by a massive heart attack. From wherever he might be in that vegetative state, he starts to relive all that came before, starting with his close relationship with his mother, Eliza Mae (winningly played by Kora Kishe Green), who had a beautiful voice, and moving on to his ever-loyal boyhood pal and later manager B.B. (a fine turn by Rueben Echoles) and first wife Freda (a wonderfully expressive Melanie McCullough), whose father demanded marriage when she got pregnant, raised several children while he was drinking and womanizing on the road and finally had enough.
With Gregory, we saw a young actor evolving into a mature man.
With Roston (whose credits include many plays as well as musicals and who enjoyed great success as Donny Hathaway in the one-man show “Twisted Melodies”), we see a more mature man conjuring his youthful bravado and all that followed. And he brings to the role a voice that, as Wilson’s did, can do anything (including that amazing falsetto) and a canny way with the many women in his life.
Laced with nearly 20 songs, the show gives voice to a slew of other performers whose paths crossed with Wilson’s: Frankie Lymon (Kyle Smith in a whip-smart turn, singing “Goodie, Goodie” and showing off some fancy moves); the Crystals (Jessica Seals, Ekia Thomas and Kylah Frye singing “Dah Doo Ron Ron” and coming under Jackie’s spell); the Dominoes, with whom he sang early in his career; and the sexy R&B singer LaVern Baker (Kylah Frye nails her in “Tweedle Dee”).
Direoce Junirs, Brandon Lavell, Dennis C. Dent and Vincent Jordan form the zesty ensemble. As always, the onstage band, led by drummer/music director Robert Reddrick, is pure dynamite.
But it’s Roston who drives this show to the point you wonder how he can breathe, let alone sing, at certain points. And sing he does, from the fervent “To Be Loved” and “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend,” to “Lonely Teardrops,” with its brilliant comic touches that leave the audience in ecstasy, to a glorious rendition of “Danny Boy.”
Costume designer Ruthanne Swanson has done a fine job of fitting the fashions to the various periods in Wilson’s life. But the show’s set — sliding wood veneer panels — is too bland. BET should think about upgrading its visual elements.
In a post-show chat with the audience at the performance I saw, several fans told Jackie Taylor they had come to Chicago especially to see this show — from St. Louis, Little Rock and beyond. Their loyalty was fully rewarded.