Style and Grace
At the Black Ensemble Theater (BET)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –“Style and Grace” is the latest celebration of black music presented by the Black Ensemble Theater. The show, subtitled “In Tribute to Nancy Wilson and Lena Horne,” commemorates the careers of two of the 20th century’s most popular African American popular music divas.
The BET production is unusual in that the music mostly comes from the canon of white popular songs rather than the blues and rhythm and blues traditions of black music. Both Horne and Wilson were mainstream pop music stars who illuminated the songs of white composers like George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Cole Porter.
Horne and Wilson are a strange choice as a duo subject for a musical revue. They were born 20 years apart (Horne in 1917 and Wilson in 1937) and their careers never connected professionally, and they apparently had no personal relationship. The musical times in which they emerged were different, Horne in the 1930’s and 1940’s and Wilson in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Wilson undoubtedly was a star (she died last December) but Horne (who died in 2010) was the more significant figure, musically and historically.
BET director-writer Kylah Frye has given “Style and Grace” an unusual configuration. Both Horne and Wilson are presented by two performers, younger Lena (Aerial Williams) and older Lena (Chantee Joy) and younger Nancy (Jayla Williams Craig) and older Nancy (Rhonda Preston). After meeting both sets of characters, the older Lena and Nancy disappear until the second act.
The first act includes some biographical material, while the second act is pure music, a Horne and Wilson mini concert. As a result, we don ‘t learn much about the lives of either one. Wilson seems to have led a comparatively uneventful personal life and career. But Horne was a towering figure culturally and musically, becoming a major figure in the civil rights attack on discrimination in the American entertainment industry. Horne’s popularity in the 1940’s was immense and she rivaled Betty Grable was one of the pinup girls of World War II among both black and white troops.
So Horne has an important story to tell about her career as well as her personal life, including her controversial marriage to white composer-music producer Lennie Hayton. Horne succeeded in carving out a significant career in spite of the oppressive racial climate of her day and a BET production would be justified in exploring the life and achievements of this remarkable lady with her own tribute.
Where the BET production does succeed is in presenting a lot of fine music from the great American song book. Rhonda Preston has been an ornament of BET music productions for years and her strong and expressive voice is a pleasure, as usual. Along with Chantee Joy, Preston provides most of the musical highlights, though Williams delivers a fine rendition of “Stormy Weather,” Horne’s signature song. The singing power and stage presence of Preston and Joy could have improved the first act, which needs pace and energy, though it might improve as the run continues. The opening act also suffers from exchanges of forced and arch banter among the singers and a pair of masters of ceremony who also double as minor characters.
The musical portions of the evening are enhanced by talented singer-dancers Linnea Norwood and Lemond Hayes (also the choreographer) as backups to the four principals. Hayes has become a bulwark of BET shows and deserves a production of his own. As an actor, singer, choreographer, and dancer he is the real deal.
As usual, drummer Robert Reddrick directs the musical accompaniment, this time leading an augmented seven-piece jump band. Whatever the makeup of the bands, Reddrick’s musicians never disappoint. Bek Lambrecht designed the set, David Samba the sound design, Denise Karczewski the lighting, and Breon Jones the projection design. Rueben Echoles designed the costumes and wigs, giving the women in the show glamorous new looks virtually every couple of minutes.
The show’s book is erratic and uncertain, eventually just disappearing. But as long as the performers sing and dance, “Style and Grace” is in good shape, even great shape when Rhonda Preston occupies the stage.
“Style and Grace” gets a rating of
“Style and Grace” is running through June 30 at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 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.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. May 2019
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