Co-directed by Daryl Brooks
Musical Direction by Robert Reddrick
Produced by Black Ensemble Theater
Etta James Raw and In Your Face
Black Ensemble Theater’s tribute to Etta James is a chance to hear passionate music in a warm and lively setting. First produced in 2005, the show has been updated to include information about James’s death in 2012 and the last years of her life. The point of the show is to hear Black Ensemble’s renditions of James’s songs; the story is for atmosphere.
The show’s concept is that somewhere in the afterlife, Etta James has split into five parts: one for each stage of her career. Numbered in reverse chronological order, with 1 being the oldest, the five Ettas are snapshots of James at various points in her struggles with drugs, romance, and self-loathing. The Ettas don’t get along, and always hated the hero-worship of a tribute anyway. Bringing them together to do some psychological therapy is drag queen Ms. Real (Reuben D. Echoles). As we relive (or for some people, me included, discover) James’s music, she goes on her own journey of integration.
It’s a clever way to contextualize the songs so they resonate more with the audience. As Ms. Reals points out, you can’t separate the art from the artist. Alanna Taylor, as Etta #5, has the high-pressure responsibility of singing one of the first solo-pieces in the show, All I Could Do Was Cry. But she nails it, proving James’s pain channels into great music. Other solos that particularly stood out for me due to combination of emotional connection and vocal talent were Yahdina U-Deen’s (Etta #2) Damn Your Eyes and Melanie McCullough’s (Etta #4) Pushover in Act I, and Candace C. Edward’s (Etta #3) I’d Rather Go Blind in Act II, though her volume in other songs was sometimes overpowering. Arzula Maxine Gardner’s Etta #1 provides stately leadership to the ensemble songs, and encapsulates James’s dignity while the other sub-selves bicker. Some of the Ettas mock each other for writing so many “My man left me” songs, but the selection is actually pretty diverse in terms of subject matter.
Robert Reddrick’s musical arrangements support the singers throughout the show; he and sound designer Aaron Quick know the tribute needs to showcase the vocals primarily, and allow them to ring clear. Costume designer Ruthanne Swanson clearly had fun with James’s elaborate blonde hairstyles. The clothes’ vibrant colors contribute a lot to the atmosphere of celebration director Jackie Taylor was going for. I could tell by the crowd’s reaction she accomplished that, but I wish she had tightened her script a little. That all five Ettas have to remark on every single thing, and then retort to each other’s remarks, pushed the show over two hours. Echoles’s drag queen is funny, but repeats herself a lot. There were times I got tired of listening to circular arguments, and wanted the music to resume.
At Last succeeds as a tribute. There’s no getting around the fact that tickets are sixty dollars, so rather than treating the show as another night at the theatre, think of it as a big event. It’s worth it if you’re already an Etta James fan, and is an excellent opportunity to introduce her to someone else. The fans are likely to be enthusiastic, and you’ll feel more like you’re at a narrative-driven concert than a play.
Date Reviewed: October 5th 2014
For more information visit the At Last: A Tribute to Etta James page at Theatre in Chicago.
At Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark Street, Chicago IL. Call 773-769-4451. https://blackensembletheater.org/ Tickets $55-65, Runs October 5¬December 28. Thursday at 7:30 pm except Nov 23 and Dec 25, Friday at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, Sunday at 3:00 pm. Run time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission.