A perennial BET favorite lives up to being a Chicago holiday classic
|Black Ensemble Theater presents|
|The Other Cinderella|
Review by K.D. Hopkins
Jackie Taylor first sprang The Other Cinderella on Chicago back in 1976, and the local theater scene is all the better for having a mainstay classic that remains fresh, appealing, and hilarious to this day. The current mounting has made some switcheroos from the last run at the original theater on Beacon. Also, the new BET Cultural Center is much more accommodating for the spectacle of the show, but Taylor has wisely chosen to balance the visual effects with the comedy and pathos of the story.
The class lines are drawn clearly in the Kingdom of Other. The palace has pomp, ceremony, and proscribed pretense- otherwise why would anyone want to get in the employ of the royal family so badly. The outcasts of the hood are Groundhog (Brandon Holmes), Pee Wee (Malcolm Thompson), A.B. (Rueben Echoles), Peanut Butter (Alyssa Zopp) and The Page (Raymond Wise). They are a goofy bunch of kids who form their own brand of cool. Taylor has opened the dialogue from innuendo regarding Groundhog’s sexual orientation and the Duke who is a close friend of the Prince (Lawrence Williams). Groundhog’s friends accept him and one line says, “Don’t even play like you’re interested in women!” Taylor has removed the character of Alice who is the Page’s little sister. It’s a good move to keep the levity in a show that could have teetered on the line of ‘by our bootstraps’.
Wise gives a great performance with what used to be called ‘puppy energy’ back in the day. It is a compliment for playing the Page, who is so eager to please and yet keep his best buddies from the hood in the loop. Rueben Echoles also serves as the choreographer and wig master of the show and also gives a classic comedy shade to A.B. It’s a bit of the Cosby Kids and The Boondocks with the gang. I approve of the portrayals of these kids. They are not up to “no good” because they insist on wearing their hoodies (a nod to the Trayvon Martin tragedy) but are just being cool when they are probably the least cool in the awkward teenage years. Zopp adds a wacky blend of tomboyish chic and Rodney Dangerfield. She has great stage presence and holds her own with the boys.
The lineup at the palace has changed except for the Prince. Rhonda Preston is the Queen this time around instead of Stepmama. Preston rocks almost every role she plays with her powerhouse range and comic timing. There is not the best chemistry with the King (Dwight Neal) but Trinity Murdock is a hard act to follow in this role. Neal does not yet have the gravitas to project the authority of the King. He has a good voice and hopefully will grow comfortable projecting a royal air without mugging or bellowing.
Lawrence Williams repeats a fine turn as the Prince. He has added depth to the character and his singing is on point and more in a classically trained theater mode. The roles of Attendant (David Simmons) and Lady In Waiting (Mandy Lewis) are still included with a more mature love story. Lewis is stunning and has a great voice. Her poised and graceful performance overshadows Simmons, who is very handsome but has a distracting lisp in his speaking voice. His singing voice is fantastic, however, and if they could sing their entire interaction it would be a sparkling duo performance. I definitely buy the romance between them as they do have good chemistry and sex appeal.
As usual, my favorite characters are the meanies: Geneva (Jessica Moore), Margarite (Lisa Beasley), and Stepmama (Dawn Bless). Moore and Beasley are just perfect as the hoochie mama girls with no self awareness. The highlight of their exchange with Cinderella (Ta-Tynisa Wilson) is the song “Wash Them Walls”. They have the moves and the serious attitude that it takes to pull off such caricatures from a fairy tale. Bless is an amazing Stepmama! She does the same ‘sista is ticked off’ moves of taking off the wig, earrings, and shoes and has the audience howling. A sister does not take off her wig unless it is time to throw down. Bless sports a jacked-up do with rollers and some strays poking out – it’s a highlight on the par of a great song.
Wilson does the best job of Cinderella in this version that I have seen. She has a great set of pipes with a pure and creamy soprano. The song “Don’t Bring Me No Souvenirs” is a heart wrenching rendition that begs for a Fairy God Mama (A’rese Emokpae) to flutter down from the heavens – and she does! Emokpae enters via the rafters on invisible tethers in a sparkling gold lame dress that conceals the flying apparatus. Emokpae is dazzling and does a cheery calypso song so breezily that you will believe everyone generally breaks into song in the hood.
The change to the Dorothy from Kansas (Erin O’Shea) role has become a bit of a throwaway this time around. The song has been shortened, and while O’Shea does have the clean scrubbed Kansas freshness appeal “The White Girl Blues” feels a touch derogatory. In this age of 2.0 everything, the proposed cultural exclusivity comes across as watered down and could be edited out. (Perhaps the Tin Man or scarecrow would have more punch?)
All in all, this trip through the Land of Other is delightful and was a great way to spend the afternoon with my niece Alexandria. She gives it her seal of approval. The music is stellar, the dance moves are smooth, and the laughs are steady running. It’s another family treat for the holiday season! (But not for crying babies. Seriously, to the person with the crying baby, that is not cool for the fellow patrons or the baby. Sheesh!)
The Other Cinderella continues through January 13th at Black Ensemble Theater and Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark (map), with performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 3:00pm and 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are $55-$65, and are available by phone (773-769-4451) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BlackEnsembleTheater.org. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Danny Nicholas
Ta-Tynisa Wilson (Cinderella), A’rese Emokpae (Fairy God Mama), Dawn Bless (Stepmama), Lisa Beasley (Margarite), Jessica Moore (Geneva), Dwight Neal (King) Rhonda Preston (Queen), Lawrence Williams (Prince), Raymond Wise (Page), David Simmons (Attendant), Mandy Lewis (Lady in Waiting), Brandon Holmes (Ground Hog), Alyssa Zopp (Peanut Butter), Malcolm Thompson (Pee Wee), Rueben Echoles (A.B.), Erin O’Shea (Dorothy)
behind the scenes
Jackie Taylor (writer, director, producer, founder, force of nature); Rueben Echoles (choreography, wigs), Robert Reddrick (musical direction, drums), Tracy Baker (bass), Dudley Dunlap (saxophone); Herbert Walker (piano); Mark Moutrup and Andrea Moore (piano); David Ferguson (set design); June Saito (costumes); Denise Karczewski (lighting design); Michael Pierce (sound design); Sara Helt (props); Lyle Miller (vocal arranger); Danny Nicholas (photos)