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Four generations of a family linked by music in Black Ensemble’s “Sounds So Sweet”

The catalyst for “Sounds So Sweet,” the engaging new Black Ensemble Theater show written and directed by Reuben D. Echoles, is a funeral. But before she moved on, Grandstine  — the matriarch of the Harrison family, who spent her life in a small town in Mississippi — let it be known that she wanted no crying or lamenting at the ceremony.

Instead, Grandstine (Yahdina U-Deen), who opens the show with a fervent rendering of  “Going Up Yonder,” made it clear that she wanted a full-out celebration as she made her way to heaven. And her two daughters, as well as her adult grandchildren and college student great-granddaughter — who travel from Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. to see her off — clearly got the message.

As they remember her, and her devoted husband, Lee (Daniel Philips), who died earlier  — they engage in all the usual family warfare and walks down memory lane that can break out at such gatherings. Along the way they also perform about two dozen songs that run the gamut from the old days (when Grandstine and her husband flirted with pursuing music careers and amassed a large collection of LPs), through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and on into the world of hip-hop and Beyonce, with a few surprising detours along the way.

‘SOUNDS SO SWEET’

Recommended

When: Through May 31

Where: Black Ensemble Theatre, 4550 N. Clark

Tickets: $55 – $65

Info: (773) 769-4451;

www,blackensemble.org

Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

The generational shifts in musical tastes inspire playful arguments, but it’s the personal dilemmas that often drive the big dramatic scenes and — this being a show created by the ever-optimistic Black Ensemble Theater — the spirit-raising reconciliations.

Rhonda Preston (left) and Dawn Bless iin the Black Ensemble production of "Sounds So Sweet." (Photo:

Rhonda Preston (left) and Dawn Bless play sisters in the Black Ensemble Theater production of “Sounds So Sweet.” (Photo: Danny Nicholas)

Left on her own to tend to Grandstine in the final months of her life was the woman’s oldest and most responsible daughter, Ruth (Rhonda Preston), who is in line to inherit the house filled with decades of family memories. Ruth’s son, Michael (Mark J.P. Hood), who is trying to make it on Broadway, arrives from New York, accompanied by his white fiance, Denise (Page Hauer), who gets a rather chilly welcome. Michael’s chic sister, Melissa (Melanie McCullough), has come, to0, harboring marital problems.

Ruth’s sister, Marcia (Dawn Bless), always the mischievous girl, has traveled from Chicago, where she runs a hair salon and has raised two adult daughters  — the somewhat sour Ria (Nicole Michelle Habeck), and the immature, spendthrift,  Michelle (Ti Nicole Dandridge. Still exuberantly on the make, Marcia sparks the interest of Robert (Casey Hayes), the family’s longtime white liberal neighbor who is now a widower. Grandstine’s great-grandaughter, Tiana (Jessica Brooke Seals), is a lively student at Howard University.

Jessica Brooke Seals (from left), Cherise Thomas and Melanie McCullough in "Sounds So Sweet" at the Black Ensemble Theater. (Photo: Danny Nicholas)

Jessica Brooke Seals (from left), Cherise Thomas and Melanie McCullough in “Sounds So Sweet” at the Black Ensemble Theater. (Photo: Danny Nicholas)

While the show’s script could use some paring down, and its set could use some firing up, the performers’ spectacular voices — and their ability to flip brilliantly from gospel, to soul, to pop of every sort — could not be more impressive. From “Mr. Lee” and “He’s So Fine,” to the Andrews Sister, The Supremes and the Pointer Sisters, to Destiny’s Child, Jade, 702 and TLC, they capture the sound and attitudes of the music to perfection.

In addition, when they join to sing “When You Walk Through a Storm,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” you might well find yourself wishing that artistic director Jackie Taylor would devise an all-black edition of that musical (perhaps set in a southern seacoast town, rather than in New England), and just let her talented actors tear into it.