The Marvin Gaye Story
Also see John's review of Bang the Drum Slowly
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 manone 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 castwith "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 endingas 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.