You could argue that any flaw (any flaw short of a felony, anyway) in a show about Patti Labelle can be forgiven, as long as the cast brings the thunder on “Lady Marmalade.”
Which is to say the Black Ensemble Theater’s “A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti LaBelle” is not without flaws. But the cast has thunder and fire enough to neutralize them 44 years after “Giuchie, Giuchie, ya ya dada” became code for all manner of sexually adventurous shenanigans.
‘A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti LaBelle’ ★★★ When: Through June 17 Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark Tickets: $55-$65 Info: Blackensemble.org Run time: 2 hours 10 minutes, one intermission
Director-playwright Ruben Echoles packs “Tribute” with cannonball songs, music delivered at maximum velocity and impact. Vocally and orchestrally, the show is one of the top musical biographies BET has staged in its 41-year history. (“Herstory” if you will, since BET is the house that Jackie Taylor built).
When the ensemble lays into “Lady Marmalade” or the empowering title tune or power ballads including “On My Own,” the sound is radiant. The uptempo tunes are so danceable your feet’ll itch. The ballads make your bones vibrate.
Does Echoles’ exposition-laden dialogue sag? Yes. Do I wish “Tribute” went deeper into the life of Patti LaBelle, nee Patricia Holt? Yes. Should either caveat keep you from buying a ticket? As the kids would say, #hellno.
The production is anchored by Cherise Thomas as Patsy (playing the childhood-through-early-career Patti) and Dawn Bless as Patti (superstar Patti LaBelle). Through the score’s 20-plus songs, Patsy Holt morphs from shy church choirgirl to global superstar and master of reinvention. The vocals (featuring killer backup work from Renelle Nicole, Kylah Williams and Jessica Seals) aren’t just flawless, they are as fierce as the Holy Ghost swirling across the great Nefud in a plague of flying frogs. Echoles’ elaborate costume designs show how long before Madonna and Gaga, Patti LaBelle set the standard for spectacular mid-career (and beyond) reinventions.
When the music stops, “Tribute” falters. LaBelle’s heinous experiences with colorism (per the script, Patsy is told early on that she‘s “too dark” to be a lead singer), white supremacy (a scene in which the tour bus passes a Klan rally will make you shiver) and segregation (“White trade only” signs are the rule, not the exception, as LaBelle tours the South) don’t register as more than blips in an otherwise fairly smooth ride to stardom. It doesn’t help that exposition remains a stumbling block. As it has in so many previous BET shows, the ratio of saying/doing is about 70/30 at best. The inverse should be true.
For all that, when the music plays, the show explodes.
A salute to the four-person orchestra (keyboardist Adam Sherod, guitarist Herbert Walker, bassist Danny O’Connor and drummer-conductor Robert Reddrick) for making a quartet sound like a Grammy-winning orchestra and to the cast for giving that orchestration worthy vocals.
As tributes go, this one is fabulous — as long as everyone keeps singing. And when they aren’t? Ultimately, it’s not a big deal.
Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.