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Chicago by John Olson

The Marvin Gaye Story
(Don't Talk About My Father, Because God is My Friend)

Black Ensemble Theater

Also see John's review of Bang the Drum Slowly

Marvin Gaye
Melanie McCullough and Rashawn Thompson
The life of Marvin Gaye, the R&B singer with a three-octave range who became one of Motown's greatest stars, is indeed quite a story. It involves family abuse, depression, drug abuse, unimaginable commercial success, and his ultimate murder at the hands of his own father. A writer could never get away with making up a story like this and, even knowing that the events of this story are true, it's a lot to pack into a two-hour narrative. Writer-director Jackie Taylor stages only the most significant events in the life of the singer-songwriter who gave us the crossover 1960s/'70s gems "What's Goin' On," "Let's Get it On" and "Sexual Healing," and understandably gives shorter shrift to the timeline of Gaye's career. Though it's not always crystal clear how one opportunity led to another as his fame and wealth grew, that sacrifice allows more stage time for book scenes detailing Gaye's demons and for 15 energetic and well-sung musical numbers. Even at that, the dialogue is heavy on exposition as it chronicles Gaye's journey through two marriages and the depression brought on by the sudden death of lover and performing partner Tammi Terrell. Parallel to his story is a subplot concerning his father, Marvin Sr., a victim of parental abuse who repeated the cycle with his wife Alberta as well as with Marvin Jr. and his three siblings.

Taylor tells the story with songs from Gaye's career, along with those of a few of other artists whose careers intersected with Gaye's (Smokey Robinson's "Operator," for example) and two original songs by Taylor. There's much joy to be had in recognizing these Motown icons as they enter the story, and Taylor's cast does them justice. Center stage, of course, is Rashawn Thompson as Marvin. He gives most capable readings of the challenging Gaye vocals and handles Gaye's transformation from relative innocent to a selfish, severely depressed and abusive husband himself. As is essential for this type of star bio, Thompson has the stage presence to command the stage whenever he's on it, which is most of the time. Melanie McCullough is an impressive Tammi Terrell, doing a hot "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" with Thompson and then making a most alluring Janis, the 17-year-old who became Gaye's second wife and muse for "Let's Get it On." In speaking roles, Yahdina Udeen and Donald Barnes are powerful as the senior Marvin Gaye and the saintly Alberta. Barnes creates a truly hateful and frightening man—one all the more ominous because we know he's eventually going to kill Marvin. Udeen shows every bit of Alberta's pain and strength, staying with her abusive husband out of adherence to her religion and her marriage vows, while providing emotional support to her children.

The show's pop standards are quite slickly performed by the ensemble and a seven-piece band led by Music Director Robert Reddrick. Rueben D. Echoles, who also plays Berry Gordy, is the choreographer and he has created some impressive dances for the cast—with "What's Goin' On" in particular a high point of the show. But at a little over two and a half hours, there's a lot of story to be told here, and with some two-thirds given to musical numbers, this musical can really only hint at the complexity and tragedy of Marvin Gaye's life. It leads to a not entirely satisfying ending—as Gaye preaches from the afterlife to urge forgiveness from his father.

Black Ensemble Theater's new home, which opened last November, provides ample space for the musical numbers and has great sight lines and acoustics, though it's not apparent that there's a lot of room for scenery. The scenic design by Carl Ulaszek is minimal, relying more on props (by Sarah Helt) and projections by Mike Tutaj. Together with the very flashy costumes by Ruthanne Swanson, the period is established clearly, and we're given a thrilling ride into the music and world of Motown circa 1970.

The Marvin Gaye Story plays the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago, through July 29, 2012. Tickets information can be found online at www.blackensembletheater.org/, or by phone at 773-769-4451.


Photo: Danny Nicholas

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-- John Olson



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