Theater Review: WOMEN OF SOUL (WITH A TRIBUTE TO ARETHA FRANKLIN) (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 29, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Three years ago, Black Ensemble Theater’s associate director Daryl D. Brooks created a kinetic tribute called Men of Soul. The revue embraced solid singers whose hearts were as strong as their lungs. Now proper, perhaps overdue, homage is paid in a celebration called Women of Soul (With a Tribute to Aretha Franklin). Seeing and feeling the sound and spirit of soul in the most open-hearted way, the salute honors both black and white performers, past and present, gospel, blues, and hip hop, old school and new age.

Compared to past bio-revues, there’s a minimum of informative but sometimes intrusive tidbits that range from praise to blame about bad boyfriends, drug habits, greedy record producers, and family friction. No, better by far, the focus is on over two dozen songs performed (with, alas, no attribution in the program to who sings what diva) by nine ostentatiously talented showstoppers. As always, B.E.T.’s show are showcases, a series of solo turns that testify to triumphant talents.

Mostly music, Women of Soul amounts to a very generous jukebox. Presided over by twin tyros Rhonda Preston and Cynthia F. Carter, the 140-minute fling features flawless recording-right recreations by B.E.T. music director Robert Reddrick and his five-person band. Their supple arrangements chart the stylings, genres, and eras of the likes of Janet and Mahalia Jackson, Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick, Natalie Cole, Etta James, Anita Baker, Diana Ross, Mavis Staples, Janis Joplin, Betty Wright, Amy Winehouse, Denise Williams, “Big Mamma” Thornton, and Donna Summer (who gets her own three-singer medley).

You may not have heard of each of these soul-sister singers (and I hardly listed them all) or recognize all the hits, but there’s no disputing the energy and accuracy of the nonet’s heartfelt second comings of “Free,” “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” “The Best,” “Trouble of the World,” “Shame,” “Just Fine,” and “Tonight is the Night.” When everyone is so good, it’s folly to single out any star turn on this stage.

With all nine singers glittering in lamé costumes, the extravaganza’s finale peaks with an enthralling memorial medley to Aretha Franklin, lost too soon in August but gloriously remembered here as a “Natural Woman” who commanded “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Inevitably, the whole of Women of Soul outweighs its parts. The cumulative impression gleaned from so much passionate crooning, heartfelt belting, and sizzling choreography by Chris Carter is of artists who had to shine, creating a constellation worth every telescope in town.

Powerhouses in their own right as much as in their impersonations, the soulful ladies also include Ariel Williams, Colleen Perry, Jayla Williams Craig, Jerica Exum, Jessica Seals, Hannah Efsits, Robin DaSilva, and one busy soul man, Dwight Neal. Their feats count as much as anything accomplished by the headliners in the third paragraph. Talent is talent is talent and it will definitely out.

photos by Alan Davis

Women of Soul (With a Tribute to Aretha Franklin)
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 January 27, 2019
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 }

Gloria Allen October 30, 2018 at 11:50 am

I have seen a couple of shows here, and always looking forward to coming back


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