Written by Dawn Bless & Rueben Echoles
Co-directed by Jackie Taylor & Rueben Echoles
At Black Ensemble Theater
Silky smooth tribute to the Black crooners a mellow song fest
Kudos to Jackie Taylor and Rueben Echoles for casting such a fine collection of crooners! We enjoy the golden voices of the ‘old crooners’–Trinity P. Murdock, Donald Barnes and Magellan Watts and their children–Donald Manuel, Michael T. Bartlett and Rashawn Thompson. These six sing their way through A Tribute to the Black Crooners as two generations of the fictional Stephens’ family as they struggle to hold on to both their 65 year old night club and their crooner style. Dawn Bless and Rueben Echoles’ book is a tad wordy yet it serves as a structure for the crooner song fest. We are pleased to hear 28 softly sensual and heartwarming tunes from a wide ranging group of singers.
From the bouncy opening instrumental, “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Duke Ellington, music director Jimmy Tillman indicates we are in for a musical treat. Next we hear one of two original songs by the multi-talented Rueben Echoles, “Crooners.” The tone is set–an evening of satiny mellow romantic favorites unfolds. The six Stephens’ family sing Willie Nelson’s “Ain’t It Funny How Time slips Away.” Next, Trinity P. Murdock channels Louis Armstrong with “When You’re Smiling” followed by a current crooner tune–“One Last Cry,” “Ordinary People” and “Just Friends Sunny.”
The show moves on with a 40’s bebop Billy Eckstein tune “Rhythm in the Riff” that was an amazing show-stopper. Michael T. Barlett blew me away with his strong, sophisticated singling acumen as he rendered a wonderful rendition of “Twelfth of Never” from the Johnny Mathis school of crooning. Act one ends with the family’s stirring rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel.
Act two features Nat King Cole’s “Route 66” and “Unforgettable.” Bartlett nails the emotional original tune from Rueben Echoles “Always be There For You” in a ringing crooner style. We hear a Joe Williams tune, “Alright, OK, You Win” a bebop song in a worthy Count Basie style. The old crooners (Murdock, Barnes and Watts) smoothly sing “Stardust, “Smile” and “Love” in the silky Nat Cole style. The kids then render “Whip Appeal” deftly. “Unchained Melody” rounds out this superb song fest.
You’d be hard pressed to find a finer group of crooners than Black Ensemble has assembled for this excellent show. Michael T. Bartlett and Rashawn Thompson are two young talents to keep on eye on–they were fabulous in this show. A Tribute to the Black Crooners is one of the best shows that Black Ensemble has mounted in several years. It has ample humor to augment the terrific music. You always have a good tine at a Black Ensemble show—this one is particularly entertaining.
At Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N.Beacon, Chicago, IL, call 773-769-4451, www.blackensembletheater.org, tickets $45 (student/senior discounts available), Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes with intermission, through August 16, 2009.