There is nothing like Black Ensemble Theater! The building that Jackie Taylor built was erected due to her lust for bringing stories from the music industry to life on her stage. I asked her once about the possibility of her spreading her wings and bringing in shows that are regular “book “musicals, and her immediate answer was- “Any theater can do that! Black Ensemble brings their own stories to the stage”. Guess what, she is right! While some of them are not as strong script-wise as others, one thing is for sure- the music and talents that she assembles is for lack of a better word ,”WOW “!
Their current production is the return of a previous script, “At Last: A Tribute to Etta James”, ten years later. She has modified the script that tells the down and dirty story of the amazing Ms James to take us from the early days right here in Chicago with Chess records until the end. Ms James did it all! Rhythm and Blues, Jazz, Vocals, Pop, Rock and Roll, and Rock and Roll. In this two and a half hour production filled with musical numbers that will make your hair stand on end, Ms Taylor captures the five personalities of the star. Like the “Three Faces of Eve” type of story, what we have in this production, is five fantastic talents showing different sides if this woman- in her life and in her music.
The five women are Candace Edwards (Yellow), Arzula Maxine Gardner (Purple), Melanie McCullough (Orange), Alanna Taylor (Red) and Yahdina U-Deen (Blue). The colors represent the type of music, the age and the mood of the different stages in Ms James’ career. As the ladies change clothes in the second act, you will see how the consistency stays true. Co-directed by Ms Taylor and Daryl Brooks, this is a smoothly staged production on a very simple set. Stools and lighting (Denise Karczewski) along with the costumes (CoCo Ree Lemry) along with sound (Aron Quick) are all that is needed. It is the talent of the women playing this role that truly makes this the theatrical experience that should keep the seats filled for this one.
The narrator of this wonderful story is a character named Ms Real. This is a character that will surprise and delight you from the opening until the end. She is a transvestite Etta James “wannabe” and Rueben Echoles truly should be up for a Jeff Award for this one (best male actor in a musical? Best female actress in a revue or musical?). We will see in the future just where this one ends up. He is outstanding and truly brings a lot to this role.
Etta James was indeed a complex personality and had what appeared to be five “identities”, so it is fitting that Ms Taylor explored this in her writing of the story. History enters into what we see on stage as we go through all the turmoil and emotional ups and downs that Ms james endured over her years. The men in her life are played by Mark Hood, Daniel Phillips and Adrian Byrd. Each one is special in his own way, and all three prove the importance of every character in a play in creating the entire story.
Of course, everyone is familiar with the title song, “At Last” (and it is worth waiting for), but this show contains over 25 songs, and each arrangement as played by Robert Reddrick and The Black Ensemble musicians are sheer magic. “All I Could Do is Cry”, “Fool That I Am”, “Trouble Times” and of course “At Last” are sung with heart and soul by the highly talented ladies taking on this role. If you are a Black Ensemble regular, you know what I am talking about! If you have never attended a production at the venue on Clark and Montrose, where have you been? Do not allow yourself to miss the magic!
See why audiences are giving this ensemble standing ovations throughout the show!
“At Last” will continue thru December 38th ( so you can even enjoy your Holidays at Black Ensemble with performances as follows:
Fridays 8 p.m.
Saturdays 3 and 8 p.m.
Sundays 3 p.m.
Tickets range from $55 ( senior discounts available) and can be ordered by calling 773-769-4451 or online at www.blackensemble.org. You can also stop by the box office located at 4450 N. Clark Street. There is street parking in the neighborhood, some metered, some not and the theater offers indoor parking in the adjacent garage or valet parking .
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “At Last: A Tribute to Etta James”.