Impressive musical numbers need a more robust story in 'The Salon'

The Black Ensemble Theater’s production showcases a crop of talented actors, vocalists and musicians, but a fleshed-out plot would really make the musical sing.

SHARE Impressive musical numbers need a more robust story in 'The Salon'
Makenzy Jenkins leads the cast of "The Salon" at Black Ensemble Theater.

Makenzy Jenkins leads the cast in this scene from “The Salon” at Black Ensemble Theater.

Darin Gladfelter

The Black hair salon is supposed to be a safe, cultural space, where patrons go to feel beautiful and affirmed.

But when that contract is broken, the results can be heartbreaking.

That was evident in one of the most affecting scenes of “The Salon,” Saturday night at the Black Ensemble Theater. Following an uncomfortable confrontation with a homophobic co-worker, nonbinary stylist Erin (the talented Makenzy Jenkins) delivers a moving rendition of Jazmine Sullivan’s “Masterpiece.” Erin sings the ode to self-acceptance in front of one of the salon mirrors, contributing to a moment when the plot, music and set design coalesce in an effective way.

It’s a standout part of an otherwise uneven musical, which runs through July 28. Written and directed by Michelle Renée Bester, the production showcases a cast of impressive actors, singers and musicians. It charms with the skilled live band’s selection of classic songs (“from James Brown to Beyoncé,” as advertised on the program). But the placement of the songs isn’t always successful, and some of the plot points are not fully fleshed out.

'The Salon'

The Salon
When: Through July 28

Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St.

Tickets: $56.50- $65.50

Info: blackensembletheater.org

Run time: Two hours, including one intermission

Set in Chicago, the play follows a 50-year-old salon navigating new ownership, changes in the neighborhood and financial troubles that could cause the business to close. At the start of the production, we meet the lovable salon employees: the matriarch, Mama T (Cynthia Carter); Monique (De’Jah Jervai), the stylist who dates the wrong men; the shop assistant (Jared Brown) with the troubled home life, and Johnny (Vincent Jordan), the womanizing barber, who frequently steals the show with his comedic delivery.

After that introduction, members of the ensemble sing Nina Simone’s moody “Four Women.” Though the song is meant as a commentary on Johnny’s behavior, the shift in tone is dramatic and jarring for the production, which is generally lighthearted.

Next, we meet Marie (Rose Marie Simmons), the new salon owner who, in a hilarious scene, presents a long list of new rules that send the employees spiraling. What follows is an impressive, and more fitting, performance of Michael Jackson’s “Workin’ Day and Night,” which features a thrilling set change.

The play sets up a conflict between Marie and the employees that doesn’t hold up; it is resolved almost immediately. And we don’t learn enough about Marie’s backstory to understand her motivations. Later, in act two, a character learns some shocking news about a loved one that comes out of nowhere. Though the character goes on to deliver a powerful musical performance, the storyline is tossed off in the very next scene.

Cynthia Carter, Vincent Jordan, cast.jpeg

Cynthia Carter and Vincent Jordan star in “The Salon” at Black Ensemble Theater.

Darin Gladfelter

The central story of the salon’s financial hardship is given a bit more room to breathe. As the employees wrestle with an uncertain future, they deliver one of the best musical numbers in the play: a rendition of Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” performed with umbrellas. The backing vocalists — a gem throughout the entire play — really shine here.

Other group performances include a fabulous dance party in the salon and a hair show. During the latter performance, the play’s real-life audience becomes the hair show crowd, resulting in a fun period of engagement with the actors. However, there is opportunity for improvement with some of the hairstyles, which looked a bit unfinished on Saturday night.

The conclusion of the play was fine, but it didn’t pack the same emotional punch as the secondary storyline of Erin’s quest to be accepted in the salon. More time spent on the individual journeys of the other characters may have helped raise the stakes for the main plot.

Still, Bester should be commended for tackling the important themes of homophobia, mistreatment of women, violence, perseverance and hope. The musical performances are worth the price of admission, but they are deserving of a more robust story to thread them together.

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