Last Dancer Standing

At the Black Ensemble Theater (BET)

By Dan Zeff

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Chicago—“Last Dancer Standing” at the Black Ensemble Theater is subtitled “(more than hip hop).” That‘s the major problem. There is more of too many side issues and too much filler to sustain a production that runs more than 2½ hours.

The premise of “Last Dancer Standing” is a television reality show that utilizes mostly minority talent to select a dancer to win a grand prize of $10,000 after going through a series of televised elimination competitions. The storyline thus has a strong whiff of “Dancing with the Stars” with a nod to “A Chorus Line.” The show continues the BET’s mission of presenting African American pop music culture on the stage. Like most BET presentations, the show delivers outstanding instrumental music from the small accompanying band, quality singing, erratic choreography and dancing, wobbly acting, and an overstuffed book.

The BET playing has been converted into a TV studio and the show’s audience becomes the studio audience. There is a large cast, including the 10 contestants vying for the $10,000 payoff. An on-stage panel of three judges does the preliminary selecting but an invisible home audience does the voting in a system that is never explained. The contestants spend much time bickering among themselves backstage.

Radiant Michaels, the hostess of the show, is the daughter of Evette Michaels, a popular rhythm and blues performer. The mother appears unannounced, instigating a mother/daughter conflict that has nothing to do with the dance competition. Possible the older character was created to allow Shari Addison opportunities to belt out some stratospherically high gospel-type numbers.

One of the judges, a popular singer named Justin Paul, is hitting on Radiant Michaels while mother Evette comes into uneasy contact with Sebastian, the TV show’s dictatorial producer. It seems that the singer and the producer had a romantic thing years back, even though Sebastian seems about 15 years younger than the lady. There is a mini straight/gay conflagration between two of the contestants, inflating the general bitchiness among assorted contestants clawing for the first prize.

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There is some suspense as the original group of contests is whittled down to the winner, but not much. The theater audience gets to vote the winner from the final three survivors. My favorite didn’t win. And, as usually happens in a musical, reconciliations abound at the end and all the acrimony dissolves into a wave of unpersuasive good feeling.

The highest honors go to BET musical director and percussionist Robert Reddrick, who presides over a quartet of highly skilled and stomping musicians–Danny O’Connor on bass, Oscar Brown on guitars, and Adam Sherrod on keyboards. The cast consists of 22 performers, some of whom are really good. The unquestioned triple-three star of the evening is Lemond A. Hayes, who is funny, a fine dancer, and a decent singer. Deverin Deonte’ took over the show for a few bright minutes in the second act as Justin Paul, erupting into a racial firebrand who is both in-your-face and humorous. Charlotte Dover is probably the best dancer on the stage and one of the three white performers in the ensemble. Her character’s conflicted facial expressions as Justin Paul goes into his black power tirade are hilarious.

An onstage singing trio—Renelle Nicole, Jessica Seals, and especially Levi Stewart Jr.–backs up the contestants and they are a consistent pleasure to hear. And you have got to love Junior White, a man of voluminous bulk, who holds his own credibly as one of the dancing contestants.

Rueben Echoles wears three artistic hats—director, choreographer, and writer. That’s at least one hat too many. The company’s skills will always reside in the music but the dialogue and plotting still require upgrading. The book needs tightening badly and once again I strongly suggest that the BET bring in a playwright or professional writer for assistance. Echols’s ballet dances do not come off well but the rhythm and blues and hip hop numbers are good and his dance interpretation of Madonna’s Vogue” is the most stylish piece of the show.

The physical staging is minimalist, but the projections featuring a series of rapid-fire quotes from the talking heads of the contestants, add visual variety. Cherise Thomas has designed a striking multitude of stylish to gaudy costumes. Whatever its defects elsewhere, “Last Dancer Standing” looks very good.

“Last Dancer Standing” is frustrating to watch. There are enough good things in the show to make the viewer wish the problem areas, some of which seem obvious, had been addressed during the creative process. I missed a larger helping of those rousing female vocalists who provided so many stirring musical moments in the past. And more could be done with the racial element that provides the most dramatic, and even most comic moments in the current production. But work needs to be done.

“Last Dancer Standing” gets a rating of 2½ stars

“Last Dancer Standing” runs through September 3 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 www.blackensemble.org.