As far as arresting openings go, it’s hard to top Yahdina U-Deen, starkly illuminated in an ivory suit, tear into Robert Hawkins’ gospel classic, “Goin Up Yonder.” The song is about meeting your creator, and the expression on U-Deen’s face, chin up, is nothing less than exhilaration.
Black Ensemble veteran U-Deen portrays “Grandstine” Harris, the matriarch of an extended Mississippi family, who has, yes, unfortunately recently deceased. But as Grandstine’s three daughters and their families return to their childhood home for the services, their mother’s presence is constantly being felt in this beloved house – whether it’s all the family pictures on the living room wall she enjoyed gazing at (the main feature of Black Ensemble’s minimalist set) or in the stories they remember growing up.
Most often, these memories involved music, since Grandstine (a one-time lead singer in a regional girl group) liked to put on records after dinner and sing along to them with her family. So at its heart, Sounds So Sweet is a memory play with a killer soundtrack that ranges between gospel, the classic girl groups of the ‘60s and even more contemporary acts such as TLC and Destiny’s Child.
As the writer and director (and likely uncredited choreographer) of Sounds So Sweet, Rueben Echoles, brings us a staggering 20 musical performances over the course of this two-act, nearly-three hour production – all pumped out by Black Ensemble’s powerhouse four-piece band led by Musical Director Robert Reddrick. Perhaps even more astounding than this song tally, is the variety and loving details brought to each of these performances.
Once we see Sounds So Sweet’s infectious recreation of New Orleans’ The Dixie Cups performing their ‘60s hit “Iko Iko” early in this production, it’s tempting to settle back and expect a first-rate jukebox musical of these girl group classics. But that’s not really what Echoles has given us for better (mainly) or worse.
According to the program notes, Sounds So Sweet, is inspired by a real Grandstine as well as Echoles’ own grandmothers. So the song selections include not just girl group hits, but also a fair amount of gospel, which may not seem as natural a fit but seems essential in helping us understand the spirituality of Grandstine whom U-Deen so convincingly inhabits.
On one hand, as a playright, Echoles is hewing much too closely to a real-life inspiration and giving us a surplus of details and plot points (at one point a character describes structural issues with Grandstine’s decaying house that are probably better shared with a general contractor), when he would be better served by a tighter script more focused on these sizzling musical performances.
On the other hand, this fidelity to real people close to Echoles has likely inspired some remarkably committed performances.
This conviction extends to the entire cast, though it’s the performances of Grandstine’s daughters (and their daughters) that dazzle us by doing something very simple – we utterly believe these talented actresses are all members of the same family. From the older responsible sister, Ruth (Rhonda Preston) who has born the burden of caring for Grandstine in her final years and warm-hearted Marcia (Dawn Bless), mother of two bickering grown daughters (Nicole Michelle Haskins and Ti Nicole Dandridge), to stressed-out D.C. entrepreneur Melissa (Melanie McCullough), we recognize these characters as living, flawed human beings who could be in our own family.
Despite some knotty relationships, the love between these family members is palpable – never more so than when they sing together. And can these actresses sing! A highlight of the first act is watching Dawn Bless, Ti Nichole Danridge and Nicole Michelle Haskins perform an off-hand living room version of the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” One pretends her juice box is a microphone – another uses a rolled up TV Guide. They are having as much fun singing as we are watching them!
And speaking of “sweet sounds,” there are none sweeter then hearing the words, “This is my song!” from the lips of the incomparable Dawn Bless as she bounds up from the couch when the band starts into another classic.
Let us all bless Ms. Bless, she of the gleaming smile, booming laugh and volcanic comic presence. Spoiler alert: Bless’ performance of the extended rap from TLC’s “No Scrubs” decimates the competition in Sound So Sweet’s riotous “Battle of the Girl Groups” sequence.
As a single mother, Bless also has a romantic subplot with a local white store owner and family friend (Casey Hayes, laboring under a heavy beard and some high-waisted pants), who showed her kindness decades ago. As they finally declare their intentions for each other in Act II, Hayes’s southern gentleman looks into the eyes of Bless, takes her hand and eases into an a capella version of “You Are So Beautiful.” Hayes’ voice may not be especially strong, but in the words of my date, it is “like butter.” This is not what we expect and not only was the audience moved (a woman in the audience a few rows back yells out, “I do!), but we also see Bless actually tear up just watching this musical performance of breathtaking tenderness.
Other highlights of this musical rooted in unusually deep emotion included:
- The Girl Groups Medley. While asserting that Diana Ross is a superior singer to Beyonce seems difficult to prove with any empirical evidence, it is the catalyst for a thrilling mash-up between Beyonce’s Destiny Child and Ms. Ross’s Supremes. The big surprise here is Rhonda Preston nailing Ms. Ross’ dead-eyed stage moves and distinctive vocals.
- The Bring It On-like sass of Paige Hauer, who joins the action late in the first act as a girlfriend of grandson, Michael (Mark J.P. Hood). In a dynamic that may have mirrored the first Sounds So Sweet rehearsals, the family is initially skeptical of Michael’s new white girlfriend, but her encyclopedic knowledge of Gospel music album releases helps win them over.
- The aching Ronnie Spector-like vocals of Jessica Brooke Seals, a promising young actress, making her Black Ensemble debut.
- The family memorial for Grandsteen, realized here by Echoles as a celebratory concert that culminates in Sister Sledge’s disco classic, “We Are Family.” Ruthanne’s Swanson’s costumes sparkle throughout this production – never more so in this sequence which has the Harris family looking their very best.
Running Time: 3 hours (including intermission)
At Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark St.
Written and directed by Rueben Echoles
Choreographer: Rueben Echoles
Musical Director: Robert Reddrick
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 8pm
Saturdays at 3 and 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
Thru May 31
Buy Tickets http://www.blackensemble.org or call 773-769-4451
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