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Black Ensemble Theater CEO/Artistic Director Jackie Taylor has yet again brought a story to the forefront that is as entertaining as it is remarkable, this one written by Associate Director Rueben Echoles. Their current production, “My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers”, is just the latest at Black Ensemble Theater that relives an iconic piece of history that, to some, is lesser known than it should be. If you are not already familiar with the Nicholas Brothers, you will be after this energetic account that is both engaging and visually stimulating. 

Long before Michael Jackson, Gregory Hines, Justin Timberlake, Alvin Ailey, James Brown, Bruno Mars and John Travolta made their mark in the industry, Harold and Fayard Nicholas blazed a trail to which our just mentioned dance heroes would later be greatly influenced and heavily benefit. Cited as the greatest dance team in the 1930’s and 1940’s, The Nicholas Brothers (formerly called The Nicholas Kids) were revolutionaries, creating some of the most complicated and eye-popping routines to date. Best described as high-flying and dynamic, their inventive dance sequences regularly invoked enthusiastic (and fearful) “oohs” and “aahs” from audiences across the world. 

“My Brother’s Keeper” is the captivating story of The Nicholas Brothers’ rise to fame, but it is also the story of love, discipline, hardships and the unbreakable bond between two African American brothers that were not allowed to patronize the clubs in which they performed during their heyday. 

The play is a timeline that follows the brothers from their childhood, to their stardom, to their marriages and through their deaths – Harold in 2000 and Fayard in 2006. We quickly see and are touched by the strong support the two are given by their parents, college-educated musicians that had once performed in their own act. Though never receiving formal dance training outside of his father’s instruction (he was a drummer), Fayard became something of a dance prodigy, eventually teaching his younger siblings. The story flows like a series of waves with its ups and downs, never in danger becoming stagnant. 

Rueben Echoles not only finely directs and choreographs this dazzling musical, he also suits up for the role of younger brother, Harold. Teamed with Rashawn Thompson as Fayard, the two recreate the magic of The Nicholas Brothers with a slew of heart-stopping tap dancing routines that accurately capture the spirit of the famed duo. Shari Anderson plays the brother’s ever-caring mother, Viola, lighting up the stage herself, particularly in her heartfelt rendition of “Master Give Me Strength”. The boys’ father, Ulysses, is warmly played by Dwight Neal while Jessica Seals is strong as little sister, Geri.  

As the show opens, we are taken inside a 1940’s-ish jazz club, at one point becoming the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. The talented musicians play behind band stands on a stage that has several tiers to allow the singers and dancers ample room to perform. Each performer is staged in glitzy costumes of the period, creating an immediate “Wow” factor.  

Musically, this production contains just about everything one could hope for - including a finale that will take one's breath away. Electrifying tap dancing numbers and exceptional vocal performances are worked into a driving soundtrack that includes favorites such as Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing”, George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm”, Cole Porter’s “From This Movement On”, mixed in with several beautiful pieces created for the show by Rueben Echoles. We also get a taste of Cab Calloway, whose commanding stage entrance, while donned in his trademark white suit, brings with him the excitement of an era that was ever so rich in music and originality. Vincent Jordan crushes it as Calloway, “Hidee-hidee-hidee-ho-ing” along with the crowd throughout his lively version of “Minnie the Moocher”. The polished performances by cast members in this show are endless, but make no mistake – Rueben Echoles and Rashawn Thomas are on a tier of their own, their vocal contributions, fancy footwork and “stunt dancing” as I would call it, just extraordinary. 

Though centered around the bond between The Nicholas Brothers and their plight to greatness, one story line in the show that some might find particularly interesting is that of Harold’s marriage to Dorothy Dandridge and the many challenges that take place between the two. A relationship sometimes blissful, but often turbulent, we feel a strong sense of love as much as we do regret. The show also delves into Dandridge’s life as a celebrity and the racial obstacles she had to overcome. Taylay Thomas is absolutely stunning as Dandridge and sings the part flawlessly. 

In “My Brother’s Keeper”, Jackie Wilson gives us another history lesson that so well amalgamates importance with entertainment. Wilson has brought several fine works to Black Ensemble Theater in the past including “The Jackie Wilson Story”, “Marvin Gaye Story”, “The Other Cinderella” and “Dynamite Divas”. Jackie Taylor has always had a propensity to bring music-filled productions to Black Ensemble, once profoundly citing music as a tool that can cross cultural barriers and bring people together in their mission to eradicate racism. Perhaps we need that now more than ever. Theater goers will have the chance to see Taylor sing and dance during a three-day engagement March 6th-8th in “From Jackie with Love”, a work that embraces her upbringing in Cabrini Green and her dealings with a dysfunctional family life.  

Recommended as show the entire family can enjoy, “My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers” is being performed at Black Ensemble Theater through March 26th. For tickets and/or more show information, click here

Black Ensemble has a fun-packed season ahead that includes the productions “Black Pearl: The Josephine Baker Story” and “Sammy: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr.”.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Black Ensemble Theater does it again, and by that I mean provides a thoroughly engaging and inspirational experience, this time with their latest production Those Sensational Soulful 60’s. Beautifully written and directed by the talented Jackie Taylor, Soulful 60’s takes a peek at the heyday of Motown music featuring music from Otis Redding, Mary Wells, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, The Supremes, The Four Tops and many more. Currently running in repertory with Doo Wop Shoo Bop (also written by Taylor but this one in collaboration with Jimmy Tillman), Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is a dance-in-your-seat musical treat that is uplifting as it is nostalgic. 

It is Black Ensemble Theater’s 40th anniversary and there is little question as to why they have succeeded for so long. Churning out one memorable production after another, Soulful 60’s is yet another triumph for this ultra-talented theatre company. Black Ensemble has always had a gift of not just bringing relevant music back to the forefront (and also writing worthy originals), but also delivering it in a way that captures its true essence, giving audience members the chance to feel the way they did when they first discovered these golden classics. Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is no different. 

A truly gifted cast helps in bringing the iconic sixties back to life. Melanie McCullough, Shari Anderson, Kylah Frye and Jessica Seals round up the inspiring group of women contributing to this production while David Simmons, Kenny Davis, Rashawn Thompson, Theo Huff and Kyle Smith take on the male vocals with the power and passion to which Otis Redding himself would be pleased. The vocal additions by each performing member cannot be compliment enough. Of course, the other half of the fun is watching the performers move – and move they do. Well-choreographed and well-executed, we are treated to several high energy dance routines, combining a rawness and precision that is thoroughly entertaining to watch, and gives one the feeling that they could easily be sitting in on a Four Tops concert in 1963. 

With “soul” as the production’s focal point, the ensemble even succeeds at honoring standard crooners Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra and jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, explaining they should be included due to the soulful nature of some of their material. Even a soulful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is performed – as Patti LaBelle!   

Kyle Smith starts the show off with a heartfelt reminiscence on Same Cooke – yep, a Chicagoan – and though he died at just thirty-three-years-young, left us with such influential songs such as “Chain Gang”, “Twisting the Night Away” and “You Send Me”. As the show progresses cast members point out interesting factoids about each artist to whom they pay homage. Touching on so many individuals that helped shape music as we know if today, the show is an apropos tribute to a magical and persuasive time in music history.  

Standing ovations frequent the show after several numbers and they are well-deserved. It is apparent the cast members are having as much fun as the audience is having watching them, which adds a genuineness that cannot be manufactured. The songs are certain crowd pleasers with a collection that includes such hits as “Try A Little Tenderness”, “Feel Good”, Mack the Knife”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “Higher and Higher”, each and every performer making their mark on many different occasions each time they uniquely honor a soul icon. With many wardrobe changes to highlight each moment, the dazzling costumes and wigs used are not only stunning, they depict the era accurately.    

Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is not only musically entertaining, it is also funny, as writer Jackie Taylor skillfully plant bits of humor throughout the show, including a happy-go-lucky Stevie Wonder being escorted back to his place on stage and a handful of sassy one-liners exchanges.     

Finely-tuned and rich in both quality and quantity, the family-friendly production of Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is being performed at Black Ensemble Theatre, located at 4450 N. Clark Street, through March 19th. This is a show that will not just have you toe-tapping and clapping from beginning to end, it also serves as a valuable lesson in music history. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.BlackEnsembletheater.org. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

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