10:17 AM EST, February 11, 2014
So what came out of Cabrini Green? Trouble and pain is the most usual answer. But Black Ensemble Theater does not dwell on such things.
For the notorious public-housing complex on Chicago's Near North Side also produced some formidable artists, including Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and, for that matter, Jackie Taylor. Taylor's revue-style homage to the soulful sounds of her youth is heating up her spiffy new theater on North Clark Street with the kind of emotional intensity that comes when you fill a theater with people who not only knew some of the musicians whose work is feted here but also may have gone to the same high school or hung out on the same street corners.
"Chicago's Golden Soul" is a straight-up musical revue, without the familiar biographical elements of the standard Taylor formula, but it was written and directed by an inveterate teacher. It's a lecture-demonstration on the cultural import, the oft-neglected cultural import, of such Chicago record labels as Vee-Jay, OKeh and Curtom, as well as an elegiac celebration of the days when South Michigan Avenue was Record Row. Chicago's golden years of the homegrown music business lasted roughly from 1964 through 1979, recently enough that plenty of people still personally remember the era when Fontella Bass ("Rescue Me") was in town, Gene Chandler sang "The Duke of Earl" and the great Jackie Wilson was strutting in Chicago.
It's a direct-address lecture ("every song in this show was recorded in Chicago") that comes with a little useful analysis of how the authenticity of Southern blues fused with the optimism of the Northern blues in this very town. But it's really all about the artists and their hits, including those re-created by a massive, if diminutively sized, young talent named Lawrence Williams, whose standout rendition of "Summertime" (the Gershwin song, but in the arrangement made famous by Billy Stewart of Chess Records) stopped the show Sunday night. That was by no means the only standing ovation during a strikingly joyous and exuberant evening in defiance of the frigid elements and the deserted street beyond the theater's doors.
I first saw "Chicago's Golden Soul" back in, gulp, 1997 and then again about a decade ago. Aside from the changing cast of mostly young performers (the great Byron Willis is an experienced exception), the piece has not changed all that much, although this latest version of the Taylor evergreen has new, glamorous costumes designed by Taylor herself. As the years have gone by, and Chicago's years as a center of the recording industry for African-American artists has receded into memory, the educational aspects of the show feel more imperative, for sure.
Taylor has still not been able to bring herself to confine the show to 90 minutes, even though that would be a heck of a 90 minutes. I suspect it is too painful to contemplate cuts.
"Chicago's Golden Soul," which features the usual BET band and a cast of 10 singer-dancers (most of whom, but not all, are excellent singers), contains something like 40 different numbers, in part or in full. The ditties in the overstuffed show range from the famous (say, the Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her") to the ignoble ("Casonova (Your Playing Days Are Over)") to such chirpy novelties as "The Gorilla," "Twine Time" and "Kill That Roach." The songs in that last trio of titles each came with specific dance steps, popular in Chicago high schools of the era. Indeed, high school memories are a big part of this show, with Taylor being sure to include in her narration who went to what historic outpost. Dunbar Vocational High School is especially well represented.
This is a great civic history and, for sure, a history overshadowed on the national stage by the musical goings-on a few hundred miles northeast in the Motor City. When you're served such a chunky slice of the silky pie that was Chicago soul, you come to feel its weight on the historical scale.
BET is running this show alongside its hit companion piece, "It's All-Right to Have a Good Time: The Story of Curtis Mayfield," a show that has proven how much Chicago still loves one of its most illustrious artistic sons. Many of Mayfield's songs ("Um Um Um Um Um Um," "Welcome Home," "I Wanna Talk About My Baby," "Sad Sad Girl") show up here too. His writing was the glue in the gold, and it allowed other singers to shine. Plenty of others competed for the glitter — the gritty glitter, you might say, this being Chicago and all.
When: Through March 30
Where: Black Ensemble Theatre, 4450 N. Clark St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $55-$65 at 773-769-4451
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