Chicago Theater Review: MY BROTHERS KEEPER—THE STORY OF THE NICHOLAS BROTHERS (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 20, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

THIS BROTHERS IS A KEEPER

This winner really is a blast from the past. Celebrating America’s most explosive and enthralling tap-dancing team, My Brother’s Keeper—The Story of the Nicholas Brothers is Black Ensemble Theater’s latest reclamation jamboree, a loving tribute to two brothers who made it big and kept it fun. It’s also a tour de force by sextuple-threat composer/author/director/choreographer/singer/dancer Rueben D. Echoles who—to repeat the feat—sings, dances, choreographs, writes, composes and directs this engaging return to hoofing heaven. Rueben’s sandwich could not be tastier.

Anyone who saw the Nicholas Brothers cavort across the silver screen knows how hard their act was to follow or to recreate. Inventing “flash dancing”, the daring brothers became a blur whenever they let loose: They were famous for—and mostly unrivaled at—terrific tandem tap dancing, pinwheel and semaphore hand-flailing, and spread-eagle jumps that risked broken knees. With exact landings as they leaped, they simply swirled around a surprisingly still Cab Calloway. Indeed there seemed to be ten brothers, not two: It was hard to believe that they survived the rehearsals that could generate such results.

Though a stage show can never be as free of flaws as movie editing, Echoles’ bravura production comes incredibly close. B.E.T. brings back an era, not just an act. Everything clicks. On the dramatic side, Echoles depicts the womanizing excesses of older brother Harold and his tempestuous marriage with competitive screen star Dorothy Dandridge (Taylay Thomas), who never quite recovered from being sexually abused as a child. We discover the challenge they barely surmounted of bringing up their brain-damaged daughter (hurt at birth because Dorothy delayed giving birth so Harold could be there; the feckless cad arrived 11 hours late). Rashawn Thompson is sweet and strong as Fayard Nicholas, whose comparatively calmer marriage with Geri (Jessica Seals) at least ended amicably. (He was also blessed with a long life, dying in 2006 at the age of 91.)

Along the gallivanting way we meet a very immediate family—the brothers’ manager/father Ulysses (Dwight Neal) who died early, in 1932, before shepherding them to glory; their inexhaustibly supportive muse of a mother Viola (Shari Addison); and their kind-hearted sister Dorothy (Katherine Thomas).

Echoles’ dutifully detailed script chronicles the brothers’ unstoppable rise from Harlem vaudeville to the big-band bonanza of the segregated Cotton Club. There they performed with their idol Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (“Let’s Shuffle”) and their mentor and champion Calloway (Vincent Jordan), seen in his solo spectaculars “The Cotton” and “Minnie the Moocher” and, joined by the Nicholases, in the rampaging rouser “Jumpin’ Jive.” We learn how their parents met in 1913; the brothers’ arrival in Hollywood where they hit the top fast; their rocky romances; Harold’s conquest of Paris where he felt truly appreciated; Fayard’s two-year stint in the service during World War II; the brothers’ seven-year separation; and the inevitable reunion before Harold’s death in 2001. (The one thing missing is a consideration of the influences on their style and the development of their dancing: It seems to have sprung from them spontaneously.)

As with B.E.T.’s musical histories, the timeline is just an excuse for good times. First off, they recreate the solid sounds of swing, impeccably shaped by music director Robert Reddrick and his superb seven-man combo. We enjoy infectious and irresistible production numbers: Recreating Dandridge’s pioneering appearance as the first African-American headliner on T.V., Taylay Thomas is sultry suavity in “I Got Rhythm.” Addison is grief times ten in her mournful “Master, Give Me Strength” (one of eight memorable songs by Echoles). The brothers unleash their feet in standards like “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, “From This Moment On”, “The Best Is Yet To Come”, and Echoles’ first-act finale “We’ll Make It Through.” Reminiscent of the second act competition between Harlem and Irish tappers in Riverdance, our show’s most exciting event is its recreation of the astonishing, tear-up-the-stage “dance-off” between the Nicholas and the Berry Brothers.

More than a salute to fraternal solidarity, My Brother’s Keeper is a contagious feast of feet. It’s also another vintage case of B.E.T. going back to the future. The Nicholas’ moves still happen today—on the “other” B.E.T. and on concert stages everywhere. Plus there’s no denying or diminishing Echoles’ six-way triumph. Chicago may never see its like again.

photos by Michael Courier

My Brothers Keeper–The Story of the Nicholas Brothers
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 March 26, 2017
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Black Ensemble Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Beverly Bradley-Duncan March 11, 2017 at 11:20 am

I saw last night’s performance (03/10/2017). Wow, wow! Such talent throughout the entire cast!!!! Shari Addison, you brought tears to my eyes with the song, “Master give me strength.” Reuben Echoles, the word “AMAZING” doesn’t even come close next to your expertise (and, the weight loss looks good on you too). Jackie Taylor, you are simply the Queen! Thank you.

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