When Black Ensemble Theatre opened its beautiful new building in November, it did so with a show, "The Jackie Wilson Story," that not only was under-rehearsed but was merely a pro forma remount of a hit from the past. The second, far more successful production in this gorgeous new venue, "The Marvin Gaye Story," is not only more polished and accomplished, but is a significant step forward for director Jackie Taylor and her company at a critical juncture in their shared history.
And the theater itself is far more finished; the fine new sound system is in place. Black Ensemble, to paraphrase the title of one of the current subject's greatest hits, belatedly has got it on.
As fans of this group well know, most of the self-produced shows follow the formula of charting a life (or lives) in African-American music, accompanying biographical nuggets with high-octane live performances of the subjects' biggest hits, accompanied by a live band. That remains in place here. You can't celebrate the life and work of Gaye, one of Motown Records' most formidable talents, without delivering at least the possibility for some "Sexual Healing." The sexy lead actor Rashawn Thompson comes through while performing that famously sultry ditty, as well as during "Distant Lover," when his presence in the front row of the theater caused considerable excitement.
Even by the standards of musical stars, not known for their longevity, Gaye's life was so short and tough that it doesn't even fit the serviceable Black Ensemble narrative model of early, sudden success, a fall from grace due to excessive behavior or poor decisions, and a redemptive conclusion. Gaye, who grew up in an abusive household and was a drug addict for much of his life, was shot dead by his elderly father, Marvin Gay Sr., in 1984, one day before his 45th birthday. In order to provide her trademark sense of uplift in the face of such a terrible end to a life and career so filled with destruction, Taylor has to have Gaye himself come back from the dead, reflect on his own life and tell us that it is better for him in heaven. One hopes so.
Of course, there's was no doubting Gaye's talent, nor his value to record producer Berry Gordy (who was, for a time, his brother-in-law) and the Motown franchise. These scenes involving the complexities of the Motown stable go deeper than in most of Taylor's works, thanks in part to some powerful acting from Yahdina Udeen (who plays Gaye's long-suffering mother, Alberta) and Donald Barnes, an unstinting Marvin Sr. This is certainly one of Black Ensemble's most somber and honest creations, and there's a laudable fearlessness to the way Taylor and the show delves into such a troubled life. As a director, though, Taylor could save much time and gain theatrical fluidity if only she could free herself from the scene/blackout/scene trap and figure out how to better keep things moving, especially when her shows so often need to revolve between concert stage and dressing room. That said, this is quite a classy-looking show, featuring huge moving screens replete with Mike Tutaj's textured video images.
Thompson struggles a little with the higher end of the register and thus rushes those notes — the guy he is playing had a formidable three-octave range — but this is nonetheless a very earnest and honest performance that delivers some of the demons of a man who always felt unworthy of his own success, while simultaneously offering a taste of the musical sensuality he could unleash onstage. Many of BET's stars have been showboaters; Thompson, an experienced performer, is more studied and careful. But then Gaye was a complex performer, and he's very well-served here.
The best moment of the night, for sure, is the "recording" of "Get It On," wherein Gaye, in a sudden moment of inspiration, changes the lyrics and makes a song about getting on with life become a song about getting something rather more fun, and just as necessary to human existence.
When: Through July 29
Where: Black Ensemble Theatre, 4450 N. Clark St.
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Tickets: $55-$65 at 773-769-4451 or ticketmaster.com