Once Upon A People: A Dancesical

Written & Directed by Rueban D. Echolesblack ensemble theater

Musical Direction by Robert Reddrick

At Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago

Terrific and refreshingly original World Premiere is pure magic!

Jackie Taylor, the founder and artistic director at the Black Ensemble Theater has enough faith in Rueben D. Echoles to allow him to create an totally new and quite original show as an off-night (Sunday, Monday & Tuesday night) show. Echoles calls this show a “dancesical” but I see it as an operetta that features dances throughout. This show takes Black Ensemble in refreshingly new directions. It is an original African fairytale featuring a nice assortment of original songs that combine the bongo-rich African rhythms with the soul-infused R & B ballads and anthems.

Donald Craig Manuel with cast

This is African-styled storytelling complete with colorful African dress (by Evelyn Danner) and loads of manic rhythmic dances. We see ballet, African ritualistic dance as well as hip, modern dance styles aided by the deft dancers from Studio One. The mythical tale features lyrical language, stellar blues songs as well as several high octane joyously festive ensemble numbers with exhilarating dances. I’ve not seen as much and nice executed dancing at Black Ensemble as Rueban Echolsa and Pamela Avery have created! This show ups the already lofty energy level as Black Ensemble Theater.

Kyle Smith & Ensemble

Once Upon A People is a fable about the joys and trouble of the mystical land of Mirah somewhere in Africa. It is a joyous, touching and warm adventure that is a terrific non-religious holiday treat.  We meet Queen Iman (the fabulous Alexis J. Rogers) and her husband, King Babatunde (the golden voiced Donal Craig Manuel) who rule the happy land. When Prince Oba (Eric Lewis) and Princess Erin (Jazzelle Morriss) wed, the witch Zahara (the powerful-voiced Claudia Cunningham) causes trouble that threaten the kingdom – even causing snow and freezing conditions-in Africa-who knew? But things eventually workout after trying moments nicely danced and sung with several wrenching blues songs, the action demonstrates the true power of forgiveness and love that embraces the joy of loving.

Jazelle Morriss, Alexis J. Rogers and Claudia Alexandria Cunningham

This show is an ode to the dignity and joy of traditional African living now spoiled by modernity. The music is intoxicating, the dancing sparkles and the mood and atmosphere exudes humanity and the spirit of community. Rueban D. Echoles has a splendid, toe-tapping joyous operetta that begs for an audience. Kudos for Black Ensemble for taking a risk with this original yet traditional “dancesical” that plays out  also as a song fest and an ethnic African folk concert. Once Upon A People is a slick, well-staged fairytale with loads of heart. It touches us deeply with its positive message and wonderful spirit. It is one of the finest shows yet produced by the Black Ensemble! Don’t miss it!

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

‘Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: December 3, 2013

For more info checkout the Once Upon A people page attheatreinchicago.com.

At Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark, Chicago, IL, call 773-769-4451, www.blackensembletheater.org, tickets $45 adults, $30 children, Mondays, Tuesdays, Sundays at 7:30 pm , running time is 100 minutes with intermission, though December 29, 2013

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