By Jackie Taylor
Directed by Reuben Echoles
Produced by Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago
To An Idol, For Her Fans
In honor of its 40th anniversary, Black Ensemble Theater is producing seven of its most popular and critically-acclaimed productions from its history—all of them written by the founder and executive director of the Black Ensemble, Jackie Taylor. The third in the series, Don’t Make Me Over (In Tribute to Dionne Warwick), is just what it advertises itself to be: a full-fledged, live-band, feel-good tribute to the soulful pop singer Dionne Warwick and her extensive career. With two hours of popular classics, dancing, good-natured humor, and historical anecdotes and factoids, lifelong fans of Warwick will find much to love about this musical spectacle. The rest of us will enjoy the music.
Don’t Make Me Over is essentially a playlist of some of the best and most memorable Dionne Warwick songs performed by professional singers and a live, 8-piece band. Additionally, the dozen-plus hits are interspersed with short vignettes from Warwick’s life that are introduced and commented upon by the “mistress of ceremonies” Ms. Divine (Alexis J. Rogers) who guides us with a boisterous charisma down Warwick memory lane, often adding a endearing zest to the proceedings with her sharp sense of humor and interesting anecdotes. Accompanying Ms. Divine are “three Dionne’s” adorned in splendid dresses who each lend their voices to some of Warwick’s songs. The production thus weaves together music and historical sketches—we see, among other moments, Warwick in her early years as a background singer with her family, her discovery by Burt Bacharach (William Dale Rowland), and her return to eminence in the 1980s. The production then concludes—as all musical tributes ought—with a swelling ensemble performance of one of Warwick’s most recognizable collaborations.
This show is, in every sense of the word, a tribute to Dionne Warwick: a feel-good spectacle of adulation. In this, then, the production succeeds with some nice vocal performances by the three Dionne’s—Klah Frye, Renelle Nicole, and Rose Marie Simmons. That being said, only Alexis J. Rogers and Toi Overton (who plays Dionne’s mother, Lee) really wowed me with their vocal performances, and I rarely felt the emotion coming through the music or felt that the production enraptured me and took me into that ecstatic “place” that musical productions sometimes take the viewer, as when we say “I was transported” by it. But perhaps I wasn’t attuned to it. I will say, though, that I particularly enjoyed the atmosphere Ms. Divine created with her direct-address to the audience, which gave the production a very friendly, lively and spontaneous feel, unlike anything I’ve encountered in a Chicago production.
Speaking, however, as someone with limited exposure to and interest in Dionne Warwick but who otherwise occasionally enjoys her music—the production as a whole did not delight me. And here I refer primarily to the vignettes, which were a drag on the evening of entertainment. They were tedious, pandering, and boring, fan service filled with conspicuous historical references, name-drops, and an overwhelming amount of factoids. Perhaps Warwick fans would enjoy these historical sketches, but I would have preferred these scenes either to be better dramatized or omitted entirely—bring on more music!
Moreover, the glut of information was sometimes repetitious, and because of the cumbersomeness of the leaden dialogue, the actresses’ performances inclined toward the stilted and melodramatic as they struggled to find a natural delivery for their characters, who were there only to convey historical information or else inspire a sentimental tone. It’s a testament to the actresses’ professional training that these scenes weren’t unbearable, but only Katrina Ri’Chard (as Dee Dee Warwick) managed to find something of an authentic, human voice; the rest, sadly, were cardboard, informational mouthpieces.
Again, though, this is a tribute to a beloved pop diva, and therefore much, I’m sure, will be overlooked by those who wish to attend to hear their idol’s songs sung live. Those with just a passing interest in her music, however, might find as much enjoyment (at a more reasonable price) by just listening to one of her albums. Because, though we learn a lot about Warwick’s life—information and anecdotes that can just as easily be found online—this production never truly gives us an impression of Warwick the person, which, to my mind, would have been a more enduring tribute.
Reviewed on 17 April 2016
For more info checkout Don’t Make Me Over (In Tribute to Dionne Warwick) page at theatreinchicago.com
Playing at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago. Tickets are $55 – $65, with 10% discounts available for seniors, students and groups. For tickets and information, call the Black Ensemble Theater box office at 773-769-4451, or visit www.BlackEnsemble.org. Performances are Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through May 15. Running time is 2 hours including one 15-minute intermission.