Theater Review: YOU CAN’T FAKE THE FUNK (A JOURNEY THROUGH FUNK MUSIC) (Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 29, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Taking us as far from death as is humanly possible, some shows just reward you for being alive. In perhaps their most joyous musical celebration yet, the 43-year-old Black Ensemble Theater continues its “Legends and Lessons” season with a major party: You Can’t Fake the Funk (A Journey Through Funk Music) is a splashy, sassy, good-time jubilation.

Written and directed by producing managing director Daryl D. Brooks, this salute to the edgy, downbeat sound that erupted between Motown and disco perfectly captures the “cold sweat” of funk’s beyond-bouncy merger of soul, jazz and R&B.

The electric bass and drums are basic to the beat. As pioneered by James Brown and Rick James, it demands to be danced—and that includes the audience in the aisles and maybe some dead folks in nearby Graceland Cemetery. Choreographer Christopher Chase Carter gives a whole new meaning to kickass.

The concept behind the pile-driving pleasures of B.E.T.’s unstoppable entertainment is that the audience is transported to a time-teleporting Mothership. This utterly unthreatening U.F.O. returns us to an era of bell-bottoms, giant Afros, and the psychedelic vibes of George Clinton and Sly Stone. It’s a trip we need to take and an offer you don’t refuse.

No tender ballads here, no slow solos — this is a rampaging rouser that puts us present at the creation of “go go” jukebox smasheroos from the likes of the Ohio Players, Earth Wind and Fire, Rufus and Chaka Khan, culminating with homage to Bootsy Collins and Parliament Funkadelic, the sound’s signature sensation. Opening the second act, there’s also a thrill-packed section charting funk’s Hollywood legacy (Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield in particular) in such vogue-strutting, attitude-churning films as Shaft, Superfly and Car Wash.

Employing time-travelling projections, a revolving stage, and Rueben Echoles’ many very characteristic costumes, the attractive and dynamic cast — Dwight Neal (as Dr. Funk, our very informative tour guide for this musical merriment), Jayla Williams-Craig, Stewart Romeo, Blake Hawthorne, Lemond Hayes, Thera Wright, Vincent Jordan, Michael Adkins and Brandon Lavell — are up to every rapid-fire costume change, song cue, and superfreak dance step. The first title says it all — “One Nation Under a Groove.”

The numbers, exuberantly restored by genius music director Robert Reddrick and his band of seven, say it all about this show: “Dance to the Music,” “Skin Tight,” “Soul Clappin’,” “Disco to Go,” “Give Up the Funk,” “Love Rollercoaster,” “You Dropped the Bomb on Me,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Let’s Groove,” and the final, literally-enacted “Flashlight.” “Word Up!”

However brimming with breath-taking bravado before, no previous B.E.T show has kept up a larger-than-life energy level so high and so long as You Can’t Fake the Funk. The standard in the title is maintained throughout this authentic tour de joie. It’s as far from fake as show business gets. The only problem is that the Mothership has to return to 2019. But mission accomplished!

photos by Alan Davis

You Can’t Fake the Funk (A Journey Through Funk Music)
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 8, 2019
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Black Ensemble Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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