Tuesday November 21st 2017

“Last Dancer Standing (More than Hip Hop)”

Recommended *** Rating the latest production of Black Ensemble Theater was a difficult task. This theater company is a strong force in creating musical pieces that present music of our pasts and the story behind either the artists, the writer or in some cases, the time. Rueben Echoles, the theater’s Associate Director, who has been taught well by Founder Jackie Taylor, is fast becoming a major force on his own. He began as a performer, then an associate director, and choreographer and over the years, we have seen him also become a writer. In the current production, “Last Dance Standing (More Than Hip-Hop)”, Rueben has written, directed and choreographed this amazing story into the behind-the-scenes of a fictional “reality television show”. There are many talent shows on TV at present, some dance related, others musical and even others that are any type of talent. Each week, we the viewers get to watch the talented people, from all walks of life, do their thing in hopes of getting their chance at stardom. This show takes this a step further.

This show is a reality dance competition where ten of the finest dancers from all over the United States, and from all type of backgrounds, are competing for a huge cash award, $100,000.00 and the opportunity to go on tour with a rock star. The story-line is filled with all the proper ingredients of reality TV, tension, drama, conflict and humor as well as what one expects at Black Ensemble Theater- great music! While I appreciate the work that Echoles has put into this piece and the fact that he is attempting to bring a new, younger audience to the theater, one of the reasons Black Ensemble has enjoyed the success it has ,is the music they have given their audiences: music they know and love! This show misses on some of that!

The dancing is very strong, but the concept of what the TV show might have been is very confusing in that the dancers dance in a group and then some are eliminated each week. We, the audience, are in what is supposed to be a LIVE broadcast (in fact, we are in the audience for what is supposed to be 8 weeks) and each time, dancers are eliminated. When we first meet the ten dancers who have made it to the final stages, our eyes become fixed on the types of men and women that are before us. There is a huge man, a gay man, a white male, two white females and three good friends who are competing against each other in the group. We learn that the TV network doing the production is owned and operated by an African-American, Sebastian ( Andre Teamer), who is also one of the judges. The other two judges are Launa  (the beautiful Lauren Wells) and Super-Star Justin Paul (powerfully played by Deverin Deonte’).

There are also three singers who do the opening numbers and more: Jessica Seals, Levi Stewart Jr. and Renelle Nicole (all- powerful voices and these three can move well). The Hostess of the show is Radiant Michaels (Chicago favorite Alexis J. Roston) who is trying to make it on her own, but seems to be haunted by the power of her mother Evette Michaels ( the amazing Shari Addison, who can hit notes that are off the music sheet with the greatest of ease) a super-star. Part of the conflict in the story is that the network wants to close the show down, but by adding Evette to the show, they back off, allowing Sebastian to proceed ( but with their eye on him at all times). This is a key part of what Echoles wants to express to his audience- “big brother” dictates to all.

What is impressive about the dancers is the performers who bring them to life. They are a powerful ensemble and in my opinion, despite the script being a little rough around the edges, is worth seeing. I was very impressed with the veterans and the newbies that make up this ensemble:Kylah Frye, Linnea Norwood, Lemond A. Hayes (he is DYNAMITE), Brian Nelson, Charlotte Drover, Brian Boller, Trequon Tate, Michael Adkins, Junior White (can he move?-wow!), Alexis Aker and Shonee Muse.Their energy and ability is powerful and exhilarating!

As usual, the music direction is by Robert Reddrick (on the drums) and his musicians; Danny O’Conner (bass), Oscar Brown (guitars) and Adam Sherrod (piano)- these men make music! The set, as always, is simple but that is because Black Ensemble, for the most part, feels the talent is where they want to shine ( Denise Karczewski and Bekki Lambrecht). The sound (Aaron Quick who also handled projection design) allows every word to be heard and Cherise Thomas has designed costumes that are glitzy and practical.

There are a number of musical numbers in this production that will be unfamiliar to the average Black Ensemble audience member. They are more current than we are used to, but ones that you do know like “Gotta Move”, “Freedom”, “Last Dance”, “Love’s In Need” and “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” will make the trip to Uptown worthwhile! It is the performers and the energy they bring to the story-telling that is the trademark of this theater that we have loved for over 40 years. Sure, Rueben tried to bite off a bit more than he could chew with this one, and one can see that he wanted to make sure the audience got the messages contained within, but he needs to look at it again, and maybe adjust it for his audience. I mean, for Black Ensemble Theater’s audience. FYI- there will be a place where the audience gets to vote, so they may have a new finalist each performance (hope they are keeping score).

Yes, we need to tell people that gays have rights, that we need to not judge a book by its cover and pre-judge on being different and of course the message about “Black Lives Matter” is of great importance, and it did sink in, but perhaps he used a sledgehammer where a peen hammer would have been the correct tool. Let’s see what you think and what other reviewers saw today.

“Last Dance Standing” will continue at Black Ensemble Theater thru September 3rd

with performances as follows:

Thursdays  7:30 p.m.

Fridays  8 p.m.

Saturdays  3 and  8 p.m.

Sundays  3 p.m.

The theater is located at 4450 N. Clark Street with street parking available, some metered, some not and indoor valet parking as well.

Tickets are $55 and $65 and can be purchased by calling 773-769-4451 or online at www.blackensemble.org

To see what others are saying, visit http://ww.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Last Dancer Standing ( More Than Hip Hop)”

 

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