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The triumph of “Four Women” at the Chicago Humanities Festival

“Four Women: Josephine, Eartha, Nina, and Tina” – a special musical production created for the 2015 Chicago Humanities Festival – was a one-night-only event, presented Nov. 2 at the Francis W. Parker School’s auditorium. But if there is anything like artistic justice in this world, the show will have an extended life. It was a dazzler on every level.

Devised by co-writers Rob Lindley and Lili-Anne Brown, and driven at full steam by conductor/pianist/music director Doug Peck, an accompanist of extraordinary gifts, the show, which starred seven Chicago divas and a dancer, riffed on the Festival’s theme of “Citizens” by homing in on the complex lives and personalities of Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone and Tina Turner. Each of these women grew up steeped in the American grain, and each, for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with racism, lived the expatriate life at one period or another. Viewed together, they make for an unusually revelatory quartet.

The set for "Four Women: Josephine, Eartha, Nina, and Tina," performed as part of the 2015 Chicago Humanities Festival. (Photo: Madeline Field)

The set for “Four Women: Josephine, Eartha, Nina, and Tina,” performed as part of the 2015 Chicago Humanities Festival. (Photo: Madeline Field)

Four very different personalities. Four very different singing styles. Four different responses to society. But what blew me away as I watched this performance was the phenomenal way in which the show’s six bravura singers – Karla Beard-Leroy, Alexis Rogers, Bethany Thomas, E. Faye Butler, Lynne Jordan and Dee Alexander – were able to shift with total stylistic sleight-of-hand from nightclub specialty songs, to French chanson, to opera, to protest songs, to hardcore rock and roll.

Beard-Leroy was absolutely breathtaking, both vocally and dramatically, singing several songs in precision-tooled French: “J’ai deux amours,” a Baker hit; “Je cherche un homme,” a Kitt specialty and “Ne me quitte pas,” sung by Simone. (Paris, of course, was the expat destination-of-choice for many African American artists.) Listening to Beard-Leroy I could only imagine how sensational she’d be in a one-woman show about Edith Piaf.

Thomas, who can be heard these days in “Ride the Cyclone” at Chicago Shakespeare Upstairs, knocked the socks off  “My Man’s Gone Now,” with octave spanning moans of grief. She also had fun singing a Kitt specialty, “Uska Dara,” in Turkish. E. Faye Butler had fun with one of Kitt’s hits, too, singing “I Want to Be Evil,” before going full force into that Turner anthem, “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” But it was with her blazing rendition of Simone’s anthem, “Mississippi Goddam,” that she brought the house down.

Rogers did a beautiful job with Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” and brought a playful Caribbean breeze to “Island in the West Indies,” with Haley, in a sexy banana-festooned costume, shimmying the fruit right off the tree. Rogers later joined with Butler, Alexander and Jordan for a spirit-lifting performance of  “To Be Young Gifted and Black.”

The full cast gathered for a shattering take on Simone’s “Four Women,” a song that is really a collection of short stories. There are no words to describe the impact of that riveting performance.

Along with Peck, the outstanding onstage orchestra featured Sarah Allen, Larry Kohut, Jaret Landon, Felton Offard and Robert Reddrick. And throughout, the projections and archival footage was priceless, with Kitt’s rant about “compromising” in a romantic relationship worth the price of admission all by itself. (Note to actresses in need of fresh audition material: Transcribe this video and have a blast with it.)

There already is talk of wider interest in “Four Women.” A reprise cannot come soon enough.