On the surface, drawing parallels between Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson seems like a stretch. Both were superstar entertainers and African American women. Other than that, they don’t seem to have a lot in common. Or so note the narrators of Black Ensemble Theater’s latest stage musical biography. But with “Style and Grace: In Tribute to Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson” director/writer Kylah Frye delivers a compelling narrative of similarities between two very different artists and activists, each far ahead of her time.
Frye tells the story with two Wilsons and two Hornes — a “young” and “mature” version of each. From the start, Young Lena (Aeriel Williams) and Young Nancy (Jayla Craig) display the kind of outsized talent you expect from a star-in-training.
When Horne makes her early 1930s debut as a dancer for Cab Calloway at the famed Cotton Club, Williams lights up the stage, moving from background dancer to limelight with an ease that lets you know you’re watching a star being born. Craig is just as memorable as Nancy, a young woman with preternatural confidence and a sense of identity she’ll carry with her through a long career. Craig brings depth to the potentially saccharine “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and creates a layered story of love, betrayal and triumph in Wilson’s mesmerizing 1960 single, “Guess Who I Saw Today.”
“Mature Lena” (Chantee Joy) and “Mature Nancy” (Rhonda Preston) don’t show up significantly until the second act, but when they do, they make up for lost time in a hurry. Mature Nancy’s “The Greatest Performance of My Life,” has a sound and a fury that hits the audience like a sonic tsunami. As Mature Lena, Joy’s bell-like voice tolls beyond the horizon in the anthemic “Believe in Yourself.”
Frye almost dispenses with dialogue altogether post-intermission, making the music (thankfully) dominate brief spurts of stilted exposition. Black Ensemble shows invariably rely on telling rather than showing, and “Style and Grace” is no different. The book is negligible but the roughly two dozen musical numbers are marvelous.
Frye draws a clear outline illuminating the ways that Horne and Wilson paved the way for those to follow: After singing and dancing through the 1930s, Horne signs a contract with a movie studio, but not before contractually insisting that she never play demeaning stereotypes. Wilson came up later, and built a career that included her own television show in the late 1960s as well as a raft of jazz hits. Their careers are decades apart, but both Wilson and Horne share the same indomitable, independent spirit.
The BET cast (which also features Kelvin Davis and Vincent Jordan as charismatic “co-hosts”) runs through the bullet points of Wilson and Horne’s lives. We meet Lena as an impressionable, wide-eyed child sent to work during the Depression to support her family. Nancy, in contrast, came from means and supportive parents. Both suffered no fools and demanded respect.
Per usual, BET’s lineup of live musicians sounds superb. Robert Reddrick (musical director, drums) and his wind-heavy ensemble (Paul Howard on trumpet, Bill McFarland on trombone, Dudley Owens on saxophone, Herb Walker on guitar, Mark Miller on bass and Adam Sherrod on keyboards) form a mighty ensemble. Perched on a bandstand above the stage, they make vintage classics (“I Got Rhythm,” “Satin Doll”) and more contemporary toe-tappers (“One for My Baby,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”), sound fabulous.
Choreographer Lemond Hayes plays to the cast’s strengths. There’s exuberance to spare in the dance numbers. Costume designer Rueben Echoles (who also did wigs) puts a fashion show on stage via an array of glamorous gowns referencing the retro-pizazz of the 1940s and ‘50s (Lena) and the sleek, mod flair of the 1960s (Nancy).
Throughout, the entire cast buzzes with joy and vitality. Even when the biography is weak (Horne’s refusal to perform for segregated troops during World War II and her work with artist/activist Paul Robeson are left unexplored) the music is irresistible. “Style and Grace” falls short in narrative depth. Musically, it’s a joyful reminder of the power of art and uncompromising artists.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.