Chicago Theater Review: LAST DANCER STANDING (MORE THAN HIP-HOP) (Black Ensemble Theater)

by Lawrence Bommer on August 1, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

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DRIVEN DANCES FOR JOY AND JUSTICE

Their “dance card” is filled to bursting. Departing from Black Ensemble Theater’s usual blast-from-the-past musical reclamations (Nicholas Brothers, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald), Last Dancer Standing (More than Hip Hop) is a character-driven jubilee that makes all the right moves. It faithfully mimics an imaginary “reality-TV” dance competition. With a prize of $100,000 as motivation, it’s an obvious clone of So You Think You Can Dance?, American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Dancing with the Stars. You could call it “A Chorus Line with Cameras.”

Except, significantly, that, in its first and possibly only season, this “dance-off” is the product of the African-American talents of 814 Studio. Its contestants, however, are integrated—but, happily, no racial tension divides the performers. The conflicts are character-driven friction points—homophobia, personality clashes, alcoholism, and garden-variety jealousy.

The piping-hot creation of the irrepressibly talented author/director/choreographer/composer Rueben Echoles, this 150-minute simulation—backstage and before the cameras—is indeed “more than hip hop.” We witness several weeks of high-pressure rivalries: Twelve hopefuls are gradually eliminated, two per week, until the “last dancer standing” is chosen by an audience representing America. (There are three official judges but they impart more wisdom than kick out contenders.)

In the (creative) process we’re treated to a classical-ballet confrontation (“Summit Siege”), an attitude-flaunting Madonna tribute (“Vogue”), a sorrowful trio (“Motherless Chile”), a pulsating Beyoncé medley, a Michael Jackson homage (“Smooth Criminal”), and, defying the network’s attempts to censor or cancel the show, a powerful protest saluting “Black Lives Matter” (“Freedom”).

Fleshing out the squabbling, camaraderie and romances that separate the songs or fill the commercial breaks, Echoles’ plot spins into soap-opera overdrive. We watch the resumption of unfinished amorous business between soul staple Evette Michaels (Shari Addison) and chart-buster Raymond (Brian Nelson), as well as a later-generation fling between Radiant Michaels (Alexis J. Roston), Evette’s envious daughter and the show’s hostess, and smooth superstar Justin Paul (Deverin Deonte).

Behind-the-scenes revelations depict—sometimes a tad predictably—the sassy bravado of openly gay hoofer Nikita (Lemond A. Hayes), as well as the struggles of ambitious but thwarted Destiny (Shonee Muse), opportunistic producer Sebastion (Andre Teamer), and big-boned Joel (Levi Stewart Jr.), too taken by the mirth of his movements to worry about the girth of his superstructure. Here, despite artistic temperament, professional jealousy, and survival strategies, team work trumps ego, rhythm rules the roost, and all doubts get danced to death. The finale, “Love’s in Need,” delivers some very justified jubilation.

As always, Echoles’ painstaking and pleasure-giving dance moves turn 17 solo and ensemble numbers into leaping labors of love, showcasing to glory a terrific 21-member ensemble and 4-man band. Aaron Quick’s sound, projections, and video (complete with video confessionals and rolling credits) join Denise Karczewski’s scenery and lighting to create a very convincing TV studio for WBET. We enter as audience members but we leave as fans.

For the record: On opening afternoon Tyra (Linnea Norwood) became the terrific title character. But next time—who knows?

photos by Michael Courier

Last Dancer Standing (More Than Hip-Hop)
Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center
4450 N. Clark Street
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
ends on September 3, 2017
for tickets, call 773.769.4451
or visit Black Ensemble Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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