Monday, November 05, 2018

Diva-licious! Black Ensemble Theater's 'Women of Soul' Revue Richly Pays Tuneful Tribute -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Women of Soul
with a Tribute to Aretha Franklin
Written & directed by Daryl D. Brooks
Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago 
Thru January 13, 2019

Before a note was sung in Black Ensemble Theater's Women of Soul revue--which I saw on Saturday afternoon--two important points were made.

One, unless we planned to stay in our seats for months, there was no way every worthwhile female vocalist could be celebrated within the show.

And second, the focus would be on women who clearly had soul, meaning parameters pertaining to the soul music genre would not strictly be heeded.

These comments essentially eliminated any critical complaints one could conceivably have had about a show that was impressively entertaining for more than two hours.

Several wonderful artists and songs were well-represented by a cast of nine terrific female vocalists, plus Dwight Neal who embodied a variety of men, most notably Rick James in dueting on a song ("Fire and Desire") with Teena Marie, played by Hannah Efsits.

I don't think I can entirely accurately cite which women sang which songs in the guise of which legends, but discovering that yourself will be much of the fun.

And the audience was clearly having a fantastic time as each tune was delivered with panache.

So I will simply share that Dionne Warwick, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Big Mama Thornton, Mahalia Jackson, Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Whitney Houston were among those featured, with a group tribute to the recently passed Aretha Franklin.

And there are just as many others deservedly showcased, including a number of more contemporary artists.

One of these, though sadly already passed, is a singer whose name and songs I didn't previously know--Vesta Williams--and with a swell rendition of her "Congratulations," I was happy for the introduction.

The show runs through the spotlighted artists in roughly chronological order, with only a few getting more than a line or two of biographical background.

But far more than narrative heft, the BET's forte is entertainment value, and in that regard, Women of Soul is particularly strong.

Besides those already named, the cast includes Rhonda Preston, Cynthia F. Carter, Ariel Williams, Colleen Perry, Jayla Williams Craig, Jerica Exum, Jessica Seals and Robin DaSilva, with all demonstrably good.

Especially given the great loss of the Queen of Soul, this show feels quite timely, and the Aretha tribute is properly moving.

Written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks, Women of Soul runs into early 2019, and is well worth the time--and effusive delight, per Saturday's matinee crowd--of those who appreciate soulful women, both of a quite famous ilk and the superb singers who salute them onstage. 

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