Chicago Theater Review: DON’T MAKE ME OVER (IN TRIBUTE TO DIONNE WARWICK) (Black Ensemble)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 18, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

DON’T WALK ON BY THIS SHOW

“You won’t get a career from singing: Singing will give you a career.” That was all the encouragement that Dionne Warwick needed to make it big over 54 years. Reprising artistic director Jackie Taylor’s 2006 hit as it celebrates the Black Ensemble Theater’s 40th anniversary (“The Season of Greatest Hits”), Don’t Make Me Over (In Tribute to Dionne Warwick) celebrates an unstoppable career.

Alexis J Rogers, Rose Marie Simmons, Kylah Frye, Renelle NicoleThis singing/dancing sensation regales us with superb, period-perfect orchestrations by musical director Robert Reddrick and his eight-man combo. They bring to life 23 of Dionne’s biggest hits–from the 60s to today, when the 76-year-old trouper continues to thrill her loyal following. So great is her talent and range that in Rueben Echoles’ 140 minute staging, it takes three pile-driving performers (Kylah Frye, Renelle Nichole and Rose Simmons) to play (respectively) the feisty, soulful and soul-searching sides of D.W. They just about do her justice.

Presiding over Jackie Taylor’s tribute script is Ms. Divine (Alexis J. Rogers), the hostess and mistress of ceremonies who leads us through the seminal events of Warwick’s storied (and unfinished) success. She patiently introduces us to Ms. Warwick’s musical clan, showbiz sisters Cissy (Risha Tenae) and Dee Dee (Katrina Richard) and spirituals-singing mom Lee (Toi Overton), as well as genealogical links to Leontyne Price and the late Whitney Houston and Bobbi Kristina Brown. (Truly a musical royal family.) We trace Houston’s career singing with her family’s gospel group, then moving to RCA to do backup for Rudy Lewis (Brandon Eddins) and The Drifters and The Spinners, and, crucially, her amply prosperous partnership with composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David.

Risha Tenae, Toi Overton, Rose Marie Simmons, Katrina Ri’chard Renelle Nicole, Kylah Williams, Rose Marie Simmons

That sterling collaboration made Bacharach and Warwick equally famous. The proof: blockbusters like the show’s titular song (based on a criticism she made to Bacharach about not changing her style), as well as “Reach Out for Me,” “Anyone Who Had A Heart,” and the chart-busting “Always Something There To Remind Me.” Rich with tricky syncopation and lyrics that seemed to suggest she’d never get her guys, these numbers chronicle her life as much as her career: “Windows to the World” becomes a lament for and salute to Whitney. “A Message to Michael,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” and “Walk On By” (the sizzling first act rouser) just sing for themselves.

Renelle Nicole, Alexis J Rogers, Rose Marie Simmons, Kylah Frye Kylah Frye, Rose Marie Simmons, Renelle Nicole in DON'T MAKE ME OVER (IN TRIBUTE TO DIONNE WARWICK).

Indeed this generous outpouring of Bacharach/Warwick classics thoroughly evokes the pre-disco 70s when Warwick ruled, inevitably triggering instant memories from older member of the audience: “Alfie,” “This Girl’s In Love With You,” “Trains and Boats and Planes,” “You’ll Never Get to Heaven,” and, most memorably, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and the anti-AIDS anthem “That’s What Friend Are For” (lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager). B.E.T.’s ballads banquet also features hits by André and Dory Previn (“Theme from Valley of the Dolls“), Curtis Mayfield (“People Get Ready”), Barry Manilow (“All the Time”), and Jackie Taylor’s own worthy contribution (“Keep On Movin’”).

Brandon Lavell, Dennis C. Dent, Renelle Nicole (top row) William Dale Rowland, Toi Overton, Dennis C. Dent (bottom row) Kylah Frye, Rose Marie Simmons, Alexis Rogers, Renelle Nicole

Despite her crossover triumphs and her zest for making words matter as much as notes, Dionne endured a slump in the 70s as the Motown sound (and specifically her supposed enemy Diana Ross) seemed to supplant her sound. Then there are recent setbacks: Dionne loses her mother and sister, along with Whitney and Bobbi, and in 2012 must repay a fortune in back taxes to the IRS. She also wages the usual defensive artistic struggles with music producers, even suing her closest collaborators. First and last, of course, what matters are the soaring songs. Happily, Echoles’ terrific twelve-member cast reinvent every super song from the past forward and the inside out.

(Left) Rose Marie Simmons, (Top Center) Renelle Nicole (Bottom Center) Alexis J Rogers (Right) Kylah Frye (back row) Katrina Ri’chard, Dennis C. Dent, (obstructed) Rose Marie Simmons, Renelle Nicole, Kylah Frye, Toi Overton, William Dale Rowland (front) Alexis J Rogers

The singers and musicians hardly needed inspiration to work their wonders. But it didn’t hurt that on opening afternoon, soul ambassador Dionne Warwick herself, looking winsome as ever in a vibrant ski sweater, was in the house. At curtain call the six-time Grammy winner (with only Aretha Franklin garnering more Top-10 hits) movingly thanked Echoles, Taylor, and the ensemble for taking her down the same melody/memory lane as enthralled the enthusiastic audience.

photos by Michael Courier

Don’t Make Me Over (In Tribute to Dionne Warwick)
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 May 15, 2016
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Black Ensemble

for more show info, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Adrienne Hickey April 24, 2016 at 5:25 pm

I was there for this opening performance and thought it was great. It was my mother’s 84th birthday and we even got to meet Dionne while waiting in the lobby for others in our party to arrive.

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