review: don’t make me over

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-DONT.html]

DON’T MAKE ME OVER
(In Tribute to Dionne Warwick)

Written and Directed by Jackie Taylor
Black Ensemble Theater
4520 North Beacon Street / (773) 769-4451
www.blackensemble.org
Through August 27, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 25, 2006

Black Ensemble Theater‘s newest production “Don’t Make Me Over” honors the career of Dionne Warwick with style, energy, and enthusiasm in a hosted stage revue featuring a fabulous on-stage band and a stalwart company of singers. While this musical production is burdened at times with a book that tells rather than shows us Ms. Warwick’s story, the songs we wait for are many and familiar and we are not disappointed when they come resoundingly forth.

Our host Miss Divine (Jeniel M. Smith) is a character we can choose to see as a woman or a genderless being in beautiful clothes guiding us along the musical journey of Dionne Warwick. (The choice of a drag name such as Miss Divine is intriguing.) We are provided biographic historical data entries (marriages, children, significant years in a significant career) in a few scripted illustrative exchanges involving Dionne (played by three singer actressesPaulette BruceCarrie, and Alexis J. Rogers), Dionne’s sister Dee Dee (Marquecia Jordan), Dionne’s mother Lee (Jacqui Thomas) and Dionne’s aunt Cissy Houston (Toi Overton) and selected men involved in Dionne’s professional life (Shay AmesGeminiDwight Neal, and Nikita Harris playing several roles). As noted above, these conversations do not soar as great theatre but serve to provide transitions between song sets.

We are not meant to learn all the nuances of the life story of the woman behind the music. Indeed, we are warned away from expected juicy biopic details about lovers and friendships quite explicitly by our host in a “take you out of the moment” sequence that challenges the audience members to offer equally private details of their own lives in exchange for similar details from Ms. Warwick’s. While this challenges the theatricality of the piece, this sequence and all of the action in “Don’t Take Me Over” is intended to respect, to hold up, to educate, to revere, to record this important twentieth and twenty-first century American’s life. Miss Divine leads this sequence of the story, saying in essence: we all have problems and issues in our families and they are private family matters. I respect this gossip line, yet found myself yearning for more exposition of the woman who sings the songs we celebrate with this work.

This is an ensemble piece through and through. The playbill itself provides a song list but not the actors who perform them. (A simple and useful addition to the existing playbill song list would be the year of publication and/or the year of Ms. Warwick’s recording of each tune.) The decision to essentially subdivide the character of Dionne according to vocal styles (a decision that also allows for ‘back up’ singers in a tidy way when necessary for any tune) further cements this sensation. Certain performances brought my audience to its feet several times, but each performance has its moments.

The sound and lighting designs by Denise Karczewski and Ron White are serviceable for the current small performance space utilized by the Theater. (Note: the Theater has recently purchased a new building and exciting plans are afoot to fund renovations in the new space.) The musicians led by Jimmy Tillman are tremendous — the horn section is particularly strongly highlighted in several songs. The simple stage set by Denise Karczewski with steps up to the band becomes a dance floor deep in the second act, with one of those show stopping performances “in one” in front of now illuminated stairs a la “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”. And the lovely costumes by Jackie Taylor and Evelyn Danner, especially those worn by Miss Divine and the three Dionnes, are just luscious.

This production as a piece of theatre could be tweaked to communicate biographical facts with more dramatic flow and power (e.g. through the use of playbill notes or stage projections rather than characters reporting historical details). The piece as a performance set is exhilarating. This is a good old-fashioned house party with a great house band If you love the songs of Ms. Warwick you will have a fabulous time with this company.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 25, 2006)

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