When Cynthia Carter unleashes “Hound Dog” near the top of Black Ensemble Theater’s “Women of Soul: With a Tribute to Aretha Franklin,” it’s the vocal equivalent of a Class V whitewater rapid (too powerful for humans to navigate). It’s an “11 o’clock number” —the kind of stage musical barnburner that arrives late in the final act, reels the audience in and then launches it home to the finale. Here, however, writer/director Daryl D. Brooks and his 10-person ensemble are just getting started.
Women of Soul: With a Tribute to Aretha Franklin ★★★1⁄2 When: Through Jan. 13, 2019 Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark Tickets: $55 – $65 Info: www.BlackEnsembleTheater.org
Featuring almost two dozen songs from a cavalcade of hitmakers from Big Mama Thornton to Mary J. Blige, “Women of Soul” has thunder and then some. The cast has the audience on its collective feet for steamrollers such as Janet Jackson’s “Control” (sung by Ariel Williams), Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby” (sung by Colleen Perry) and a Donna Summer medley (anchored by Jayla Craig), the last with a toot-toot/beep-beep intensity to rival the rush-hour Dan Ryan. Firepower notwithstanding, the ensemble also knows when to dial it down. Romance and torch songs ooze likes molasses from the likes of Vesta Williams’ “Congratulations” (performed by Jerica Exum) and Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” (sung by Rhonda Preston).
The production is a prime example of what BET does so well: Revues that remind everybody in earshot how the showcased artists make the world richer.
In their hit-making heydays, many of the revue’s stars shone so brightly it felt like they’d be with us forever. And on one key level, they are: Summer, Amy Winehouse, Teena Marie, Whitney Houston, Etta James and Aretha Franklin (among others) live on through their music. In numbers including “Respect” (part of the finale’s all-hands-on-deck Franklin medley), Teena Marie’s “Lovergirl” (sung by Hannah Efsits) and Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” (performed by Jessica Seals) there is a flickering reminder of loss amid the songs’ incandescent joy.
“Women of Soul” is at its best during the musical numbers, although Brooks’ dialogue includes snippets of history and biography that provides context. The short dramatic scenes, often illustrating a singer’s domestic difficulties – are less successful. Aaron Quick’s projections are primarily decorative, but one image of Franklin and Martin Luther King Jr. together, for example, startle with their power.
The heart of the piece is rooted in music courtesy of director/percussionist Robert Reddrick and his ensemble (keyboardists Adam Sherrod and Dolpha S. Fowler, guitarist Gary Baker and bassist Mark Miller). Perched above the stage, the group hits the grooves with verve and impact. Combined with a runway-worthy array of gowns, micro-minis and stiletto heels (costumes and wigs by Rueben D. Echoles), “Women of Soul” looks as fine as it sounds.
The potential song list for “Women of Soul” encompasses hundreds if not thousands of contenders. BET has curated many of the best.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.