Chicago Theater Review: THE JACKIE WILSON STORY (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 8, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Kelvin Roston Jr as Jackie Wilson 1The latest rouser in Black Ensemble Theater’s 40th anniversary celebration/season, The Jackie Wilson Story, a retrospective on an R&B Legend, showcases terrific talent. It also revives a 2000 hit that went on to a 2002 national tour, culminating in a record run at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The blast from the past more than earns a welcome return.

Unlike previous hits like Great Women of Gospel, Sensational Soulful 60s, and Doo Wop Shoo Bop, the Black Ensemble Theater’s latest show–a tribute to legendary performer Jackie Wilson (1934-1984)—is a bit more than an ensemble effort. No question, the cast is terrific at recreating the full-throated splendor of such pop stars as Sam Cooke, Frankie Lymon, The Crystals, Etta James, and LaVern Baker. But, just as 16 years ago, the night belongs to the title crooner. Then it was Chester Gregory II. In 2016 the next generation delivers Kelvin Roston, Jr. Playing troubled troubadour Jackie Wilson with pulverizing power, this veteran Chicago phenom has a soaring pop tenor that would have made him a star in Wilson’s time and may well do so today.

cast horiz 2

Written, directed and occasionally composed by Jackie Taylor (who in the past has forged stunning tributes to Otis Redding, Bessie Smith, Dionne Warwick, and Ethel and Muddy Waters), The Jackie Wilson Story covers the complex twists of Wilson’s turbulent career. It’s all here: Wilson’s start as a Detroit boxer; then crooner in the doo wop group Billy Ward and his Dominoes (influences were Wilson’s mother and Al Jolson); partnership with Berry Gordy; success as a soloist recording “Reet Petite” in 1957 for the mob-connected Brunswick Records; and mentor to Elvis Presley and influence on Bruce Springsteen, James Brown and Michael Jackson.

“Mr. Excitement,” as he was rightly (and ironically) called, had a four-octave vocal range and delivered enough musical innovations to help transform rhythm and blues into simply soul. A two-time Grammy Hall of Fame inductee, Wilson entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Smith, Jordan, Lavell & Dent

But there was a price to pay for the pleasure Wilson gave and felt: Darker doings include his horndog womanizing, heavy drinking, drug-taking, and mysterious seizure on stage in 1975 (during a Dick Clark Oldies Concert). Did the Mafia poison him into a massive heart attack and stroke, just before he was to testify against them? (In any case Wilson lapsed into a coma and died almost nine years later, ironically just as his hits and style had become popular again. A bit incongruously, the show frames the retrospective with a paralyzed, off-voiced Wilson, covered up and narrating from a bed in a hospital room.)

Kylah Frye, Jessica Seals & Ekia Thomas

Taylor’s tell-all script gives special emphasis on Wilson’s sadder side–how he was bilked by his long-time manager and his unscrupulous recording company, his failure to pay child support, his run-ups with Jim Crow racism, his son’s murder at 16, his three marriages, including a forced one to an all-suffering childhood sweetheart (Melanie McCullough) and another to a predatory fortune huntress. B.E.T. playwright/performer Rueben Echoles carries a lot of the plot as Jackie’s constant chum B.B., while Kora Kishe Green is wonderful as Wilson’s devoted mom. At times the exposition is excessive but it puts the songs back into the life.

Kelvin Roston Jr as Jackie Wilson 2

The rest is up to the pompadoured Roston. He effortlessly evokes Wilson’s sometimes sincere but always sexy charm, swivel strut, soaring falsetto, jiggly knees, funky dance routines, handkerchief love tokens, and rascally persona. Above all, Roston brings absolute immediacy to twenty classics. These include “Lonely Teardrops,” “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” “To Be Loved” and “Baby Workout,” along with old-time favorites like “Goody Goody” and three terrific added songs from author/director Jackie Taylor.

Kelvin Roston Jr and cast horiz

Roston’s impish hijinks put the crowd into conniptions, and his soulful delivery of “Danny Boy” turns an Irish folk song into a Motown masterpiece: He may be the first singer to receive a jumping ovation. Terrific back-up comes, as always, from musical director and drummer Robert Reddrick. The Black Ensemble Theater’s treasure talent restores the original arrangements to gold, as in records, and propels the seven-man band to chartbusting glory.

Kelvin Roston Jr with cast-16

photos by Danny Nicholas

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The Jackie Wilson Story
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 4, 2016
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Black Ensemble Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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