After years in the shadow of Jackie Taylor, the founder and indefatigable public face of the Black Ensemble Theatre, associate director Rueben Echoles finally has been handed the keys to the Cadillac: the chance to write, direct and choreograph his own original musical in the spiffy, new Black Ensemble space. And "One Name Only" (subtitled "A Different Kind of Reality Show") is not only one heck of a good time, but a welcome — and at this juncture, crucial — departure from this theater's familiar formula.
Here's a show that Black Ensemble can use to attract younger theatergoers without upsetting its core fans, all of whom will have a blast. And you could easily see a commercial producer taking this stellar jukebox idea and running with it all over the map.
Echoles certainly has ingested Taylor's shrewd love of populism and knack for casting scintillating young African-American musical talent. He also seems to have learned Taylor's reluctance to cut, and her resistance to really getting those transitions moving and the tension crackling. But if he could lose 15 minutes from this Shakespearean running time, he'd be cooking with populist gas here.
"One Name Only" imagines a Chicago-based talent-slash-reality show — a combo, it seems, of "American Idol" and "The Voice" with elements of "America's Next Top Model" and "The Real World" thrown in for good measure. We follow various characters through a grueling audition process: Tanika, a gal from the 'hood (played by Lisa Beasley) who worries she might be "too ghetto"; a sweet, pretty girl named Kara (Ta-Tynisa Wilson) with doting grandparents; Marylin (Candace C. Edwards), a diva whose career is on a downward spiral; cute cousins Mya (A'rese Emokpae) and Miko (Jerica Exum), forced to compete with each other; and the hard-working April (Deborah Spencer) with a big dream and cheating hubby. You see them all perform hits from the catalog of musical greats (Beyonce, Whitney, Aretha, Gladys) and watch the drama of their eliminations, heartaches and triumphs.
Sure, there are no dramaturgical surprises whatsoever. Sure, these are caricatures, but since we're in the realm of reality TV, that works in a meta sort of way. And believe me, there are some performances here.
I'd never seen Wilson before, but she's a glamorous singer with a huge voice and a tightly focused way of acting her way through a song. Emokpae is another name to watch. But frankly, this group of eye-popping young women nails pretty much every number, from "Run the World" to "Something He Can Feel" to "Lady Marmalade." Even if you're familiar with this theater's modus operandi, you'll be struck by the sheer number and diversity of the belt-it-out-of-the-park opportunities.
Be warned that the piece certainly taps into the way a lot of post-"American Idol" performers now learn and want to sing — which might well drive you crazy if you're a musical theater purist — but as a kind of showcase for young Chicago talent, "One Name Only" is sufficiently well-stocked to reward any agent's time. And it's hardly fair to fault a show about the "American Idol" culture for being too much that way itself. Nope, Echoles has armed himself well here.
He's also kept another Taylor staple — the celebrity impersonation. And Dawn Bless doing Patti LaBelle doing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is, unequivocally, the biggest and most spectacular diva act, at least anywhere north of "Kinky Boots" downtown (which I've not yet seen). I was just thinking how Echoles really didn't need these "celebrity guests," even if the shows themselves feature them, when Bless walked out and killed that number so spectacularly that she stopped the show. There was hootin' and hollerin' for several solid minutes.
Rest assured Taylor's not going anywhere. But here's a show to serve notice it's no longer "One Name Only" at Black Ensemble.
When: Through Nov. 11
Where: Black Ensemble Theatre, 4450 N. Clark St.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Tickets: $55 at 773-769-4451 or blackensembletheater.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye