In Tribute to Patti La Belle

        At the Black Ensemble Theater

    By Dan Zeff


Chicago—The Black Ensemble Theater has found the perfect fit for its new production, “A New Attitude: A Tribute to Patti LaBelle.” The BET has matched a pair of stunning singers from the company with a colorful and super talented subject. The outcome is a soaring musical biography of singer Patti LaBelle that shakes the rafters when it isn’t tickling the audience funny bone or creating a lump in the throat.

Patti LaBelle has been a major figure in African American music for more than half a century and she is still motoring today at the age of 74. She hasn’t had a particularly turbulent life, but she has experienced enough dramatic incidents to hold the audience’s attention between musical numbers. Patti enjoyed decades of success but there was pain in her personal life– a marriage that quietly ended after 32 years, deaths in her family, artistic conflicts, and the ever present racial barricades. A record producer early in Patti’s career initially rejected her because her skin was too dark. She has had her share of peaks and valleys, but her music sustained her spirit.

The show takes a straight ahead chronological approach, beginning with our introduction to a shy and insecure girl named Patricia Louise Holt, born in Philadelphia in 1944. She started singing in a local church choir and her booming voice earned her a reputation that led to a career beginning in the lower levels of show business. Patricia became part of a girl rock ‘n’ roll singing group called the Blue Belles in 1961. A record producer gave her the stage name of Patti LaBelle to inject more show biz bounce.

Photo credit: Alan Davis

The Blue Belles started out as a quartet and became a trio in 1967 when Cindy Birdsong left the group to replace Florence Ballard as one of the Supremes. The Blue Belles took their place among the many successful girl groups in rock ‘n’ roll during the 1960’s and 1970’s, staying together until 1976, when internal differences led to a permanent breakup.

Then Patti decided to go solo, launching a new career that continues to this day. “A New Attitude” in the show’s title refers to the song she recorded in 1984 that jump started her solo career after seven years without a hit following the break-up of the Blue Belles. That attitude translated into a flashier, more extravagant on-stage presence loaded with sass and spectacle. She even had a modest hit in 1985 with the song “New Attitude’ from the soundtrack of the motion picture “Beverly Hills Cop.”

Patti LaBelle not only possessed a roaring expressive voice but she created a grandiose stage presence, with an extravagant sequins and feathers wardrobe that set the table form the gaudy outfits popularized by Kiss and similar groups. She eventually expanded her career to Broadway, television, and motion pictures and even wrote a couple of popular books.

The BET production gives us two Patti LaBelles, the younger woman played by Cherise Thomas and the mature Patti played by Dawn Bless. Together they cover the entire spectrum of the LaBelle songbook—jazz, blues, rock, rhythm and blues, Broadway and motion pictures, soul, and gospel.

Photo credit: Alan Davis

Thomas and Bless sell their numbers with a sincerity that can’t be faked. Thomas belts out a scorching plea to her long-time friend Armistead to marry her after refusing him for years. Bless delivers one of the most emotional and aching renditions I’ve ever heard in her hymn to her dead sister (in real life Patti lost all three sisters to cancer within a few years of each other).

Thomas gets strong support during the Blue Belles period from Blue Belles played by Jessica Brooks Seals, Renelle Nicole, and. Kylah Williams also doubles well as Patti’s mother Chubby. Linnea Norwood is good as one of Patti’s sisters. Emily Hawkins does a fine bit as English record executive Vicki Wickham, who was largely responsible for guided LaBelle into international stardom, giving the group its new name in 1971. We even get cameos of popular divas of the day like Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington.

This show belongs to the women but Christopher Taylor, Isaac Roseborough, Trequon Tate, and Mark Yacullo lend valuable support. Yacullo pairs nicely with Patti as Michael McDonald in the duet “On My Own” that is among the production’s many musical highlights.

Bless charges her character with a charisma and command, as well as the heart-on-your-sleeve intensity that has made Patti such a galvanizing entertainer in person. Bless captures her engaging personality as well as her more willful side. The story gives the audience glimpses of the racism that afflict black performers, even the biggest names, as they moved through the South, including a chilling moment when the group’s car passed close to a Ku Klux Klan rally.

The physical production centers mostly the flash-and sizzle costumes designed by Rueben D. Echoles, whose sure hand is everywhere as director, choreographer, and book writer. He gets outstanding assistance from Bekki Lambrecht (set design), Denise Karczewski (lighting), David Samba (sound), and Aaron Quick (video designs).

As always, a hero of the occasion is the small band led by drummer Robert Reddrick. This time there are only four musicians, Reddrick, Danny O’Connor (bass), Herbert Walker (guitar), and Adam Sherod (keyboards). There is no style the foursome doesn’t handle but their rhythm and blues accompaniment is especially triumphant.

Patti Labelle was not a hit machine during her long career, though her recordings frequently made the charts and she did have a couple of #1 numbers in “On My Own” and “Lady Marmalade” (1975), a stomping hymn to a New Orleans hooker. But what sells her music, and is so prominent at the BET, is Patti’s level of emotional commitment. She is a theatrical performer but she sells her songs with an honesty that reached out to the listener, no matter how outrageous her costumes in her LaBelle days. Her vibrant personality must have rubbed off on the BET production because every performer on stage seemed to love being in the show.

The show gets a rating of

        “A New Attitude: A Tribute to Patti LaBelle” runs through June 17 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark Street. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $55 and $65. Call 773 769 4451 or visit

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