Black Ensemble Theater is doing what it does best! That is probably the best way to put it, as they now do “Men of Soul” with a tribute to Bill Withers, more of a Cabaret Review over a “book play” and as far as the opening night audience was concerned, that was great!!!!. In fact, this is what they do best! Over the years, Jackie Taylor and her staff have found some of Chicago’s most dazzling talents to grace their stage(s). Yes, first at the smaller venue and now at the new, high tech venue on Clark Street, just 8 blocks north of Wrigley Field. This show is two hours (with a 15 minute intermission) that takes us down memory lane, visiting the legends of “Soul”, both Black and White. It is nice to see a show that is integrated at a theater named Black Ensemble as it truly shows just how our population can blend into one, at least when it comes to the world of entertainment.
Written and directed by Associate Artistic Director Daryl D. Brooks, this is in fact a musical revue that features the music of some of the greatest “soul” singers of all time. While there is no actual story, allowing for several additional songs, we can see that they shared similar feelings and that it was their music that allowed them to seek, and find their strength as they found “their souls”. It isn’t just about the music itself, but the strength to persevere when they met obstacles that appear in everyone’s lives. The passion that moved them towards digging deep inside their beings and drove them to write the music they did. Music that will live far beyond their lives. While this production is the MEN being featured, three of Black Ensemble’s talented women are part of this powerful cast: the lovely Cherise Thomas, the powerful Rhonda Preston (who makes five wig changes in this show along with her dresses) and the always reliable Dawn Bless. They are here for , as they put it, “the back-ups and the duets”, but as always, hearing these ladies do their thing is an experience worth the trip to Chicago. It is sort of alluded to that there will soon be a “Women of Soul”, and I am sure a few men will grace the stage for this.
The men in this show are spectacular and while there is very little in the way of set, although they do have a piano come up from the inner stage, they do have some wonderful projections showing the men they are portraying, Prince, Billy Joel, Lionel Ritchie, Luther Vandross, Tom Jones, Billy Ocean, Joe Cocker, Peabo Bryson, Elton John, Bill Withers, Ray Charles and many more, including a marvelous James Brown as brought to life by Rueben D. Echoles (who has been on the other side of the stage lately-directing and writing- welcome back to your favorite space, the stage!). I must tell you that I was amazed at newcomer Kevin Pollack and his interpretation of Joe Cocker as well as how he handled Billy Joel- I am sure they will find another character for him to recreate in the future. He has “soul”. The other shocker was Matthew Payne doing Tom Jones- wow! it looks like Black Ensemble has added some winners to their list of talented singers. For this, I say thanks!
The other men in the show are all amazing; newcomer Matthew Hunter, veteran Lyle Miller, the extraordinary Daniel Phillips (wait until you see who he brings to the stage), Rashawn Thompson, who many of us have seen grow up on the stages of Black Ensemble, and Kyle Smith (his Prince to end the first act will knock your socks off). Each and every number is great and while you may not know every song from the list of 23, as you listen to each, the memories will return and you will find that you know more than you thought. The music under the direction of Robert Reddrick is him on the drums and Justin Dillard on the keyboard, with Mark Miller on the bass and Gary Baker on the guitar- these four men sound as if there is a full orchestra in the house- and yet we are able to hear every lyric of every song. There are some narratives to lead us along the way, but no story to follow, which makes it more of a revue and one that will have you humming and singing on the way home.
“Men of Soul” will continue at Black Ensemble Theater through August 31st with performances as follows:
Fridays 8:00 p.m.
Saturdays 3 and 8 p.m.
Sundays 3 p.m.
Tickets range in price from $55-$65 and are available at the box office, by calling 773-769-4451 or online at www.blackensemble.org
The theater is located at 4450 N. Clark Street (at Montrose) with indoor valet parking (only $10) and on street parking, metered or not.
Discounts for students and seniors.
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “Men of Soul”